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New Zealand applying the handbrakes

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AUCKLAND — On Monday you would have thought New Zealand had already won the World Cup — gone was the nervousness and hedging of bets that had visitors wondering whether the Kiwis had lost all their rugby confidence.

With punters piling up the bets in the All Blacks’ favour, the talk-show assumptions that it would be a 30 point win in Sunday’s final against France seemed to be the national expectation.

On Tuesday, though, the apprehension was back, and with it was the feeling New Zealand was actually a lorry that had been running fast down a hill, but the driver was now trying to apply the handbrake, to halt the momentum in the knowldge there is a potential oil slick at the foot of the hill.

The New Zealand Herald, after learning that the Auckland Council chiefs were already behind closed doors planning a World Cup victory parade for the All Blacks, asked the question: “Are we tempting fate . . . again?”

New Zealand’s main daily newspaper said the plan, which involved talks aiming at organising a ticker-tape parade up Queen Street next Wednesday or Thursday, evoked uncomfortable memories of 2007, when a similar bash started being hatched just before the All Blacks bombed out in their quarter-final against France in Cardiff.

Veteran television commentator Keith Quinn warned All Black supporters with a line from Shakespeare — “We must not run before our horse to the market” — and said that all self-appointed historians would remember the 1999 and 2007 games against France.

“(Back then) it was almost as if the fans never believed they could lose,” he said.

You did get the impression from the way the Eden Park crowd reacted to the All Black win over Australia in the semifinal that the Kiwis thought they had already won the World Cup.

And you could hardly blame them as the same venue had hosted a match the previous evening where the French were pretty awful and decidedly fortunate to edge out a 14-man Wales in the other semi-final.

But on Tuesday there seemed there were many who were saying: “Come on, I am a bit uncomfortable about this, we still need to actually go out there and win it.”

And among those people was All Black coach Graham Henry, who admitted to having uncomfortable memories of four years ago, when the Kiwis went into the quarter-final against the French having beaten them 42-11 and 61-10 earlier in the year only to crash 20-18 when it really mattered.

“That game caused some people a lot of pain,” said Henry.

The All Black coach reckons New Zealand’s poor record in this tournament might be helpful this time though, and he made it clear history had been thoroughly dissected by him and his coaching staff in an attempt to cover all bases building up to Sunday’s decider.

“It (the history) has been helpful. This group has not been in a final so it is a new experience, but as I said after the game on Sunday, it is important to come down (from the high of winning the semi-final), to get back to base again, to have a clean sheet of paper and then to start over from there,” he said.

“Although France did not play well in the semi-final we know they have the ability to play some outstanding rugby and they have done that in the past. They will have nothing to lose on Sunday and they will play well. We have to make sure we do the business again.”

Henry is right to be concerned. The French have been woeful at this tournament and advance to the final even though they have lost twice and were thrashed by the All Blacks by 20 points in a pool game.

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