Friday, October 29, 1999 Published at 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
French flair meets All Black might
Reaching new heights: France hope to create a major upset
Even the most ardent optimist would find it hard to back France when they take on World Cup favourites New Zealand in their semi-final at Twickenham on Sunday.
The All Blacks have looked unstoppable in most phases of play and at every stage of the tournament, while the French have looked disorganised and out-of-sorts against the weakest of opponents.
The two teams' journey to the semi-finals could hardly have been more different.
The All Blacks are the reigning Tri-Nations champions - a record 28-7 loss to Australia notwithstanding - and progressed through the group stages of the World Cup undefeated, recording hard-fought victories over England and Tonga before handing a 101-3 pasting to Italy.
By contrast, France took the Five Nations wooden spoon before slumping to a summer friendly defeat to tiny Tonga.
Fortunately for the French, they enjoyed probably the easiest route to the semi-finals in World Cup history, but they made even that look difficult.
In the group stage they scraped past Canada and Fiji and were hardly convincing against the minnows of Namibia. Their last-eight match confrontation with surprise quarter-finalists Argentina was an end-to-end thriller that owed much to the Gallic disregard for defence in favour of all-out attack.
The Lomu problem
Defence is one element they cannot neglect when they take on the frighteningly potent attacking force of the All Black back line. The skills of Jeff Wilson, Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga and, of course, Jonah Lomu can prize apart even the staunchest lines - and nobody would accuse the French of being staunch.
And it is not as if they can take solace in the possible absence of star New Zealand fly-half Andrew Mehrtens. Even if he fails to recover from a bruised knee in time for the match, his understudy Tony Brown would make it into most international line-ups as an automatic first choice.
Ominously, the All Blacks have made an unforced change, dropping scrum-half Justin Marshall for attacking reserve Byron Kelleher, suggesting they intend to run at the French.
Coach John Hart confirmed that Kelleher's selection was a tactical choice.
"He was the best option for this particular game," he said.
The last time the two sides met, New Zealand piled 54 points on France, although both sides will know that there is a massive difference between a friendly and a World Cup semi-final.
Size and technique
France manager Jo Maso said: "We have started a new adventure with this World Cup and what happened before does not count.
Similarly, Hart said: "I expect the French to be hugely fired up for this game. I think they will come out and throw everything at us.
"They have got the size and the technique. It's going to be an interesting day at the office."
France are the only northern hemisphere side still in the World Cup. They are also the only team from north of the equator to have won a series against New Zealand and if they fire on the day, they could cause the All Blacks all sorts of problems.
New Zealand:15 Jeff Wilson; 14 Tana Umaga, 13 Christian
Cullen, 12 Alama Ieremia, 11 Jonah Lomu; 10 Andrew Mehrtens or
Tony Brown, 9 Byron Kelleher; 8 Taine Randell (captain), 7 Josh
Kronfeld, 6 Reuben Thorne, 5 Robin Brooke, 4 Norm Maxwell, 3
Craig Dowd, 2 Anton Oliver, 1 Carl Hoeft.
France: 15 Xavier Garbajosa; 14 Philippe Bernat-Salles,
13 Richard Dourthe, 12 Emile Ntamack, 11 Christophe Dominici;
10 Christophe Lamaison, 9 Fabien Galthie; 8 Christophe Juillet,
7 Olivier Magne, 6 Marc Lievremont, 5 Fabien Pelous, 4 Abdel
Benazzi, 3 Franck Tournaire, 2 Raphael Ibanez (captain),
1 Cedric Soulette.
Referee: Jim Fleming (Scotland).