Sunday’s final at Auckland’s Eden Park will be the sixth World Cup encounter between the two sides. Why have their games been so spicy? For that, you have to go back to the years leading up to the 1987 tournament and two events that fuelled mutual loathing between the two sides.
The first had nothing to do with rugby. In 1985, relations between New Zealand and France were strained when the French carried out a series of nuclear tests in the south Pacific. The New Zealand government opposed the tests and banned French warships from their waters.
They did, however, allow the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior to dock in Auckland harbour. French secret service agents blew the ship up with limpet mines, killing one member of the crew. The culprits were quickly caught, causing an international scandal.
The following year, the All Blacks toured Europe and played France twice. In the first match, in Toulouse, the tourists won comfortably, 19-7. The following week, though, they were victims of an almighty backlash in Nantes, where a ferocious and fired-up French side won 16-3. New Zealand’s Wayne Shelford lost several teeth and required stitches in his scrotum during the game.
“We wanted to play them in the final [in 1987] because we wanted revenge,” said Shelford. They got that, but they have suffered some famous setbacks since.
Flashback: An improbable rivalry has created a colourful World Cup history
1999. Semi-final. Twickenham. New Zealand 31 France 43
The greatest World Cup match? Few gave France much hope of reaching the final. The All Blacks had cruised through their pool and had beaten Scotland comfortably in the quarter-finals.
The All Blacks still looked on course to reach the final with room to spare when they ran up a comfortable first-half lead. Then, though, something clicked in the French team. They reversed the 24-10 deficit with a stunning fightback, putting on 33 unanswered points before New Zealand added a consolation try at the end.
France went on to face Australia in the final the following weekend, but they could not recreate their magic and lost 35-12.
2003. Third-place play-off. Sydney. New Zealand 40 France 13
Neither side had been close to their best. France did deliver one wonderful performance when they swept past Scotland 51-9 in the pool stages, but their form in other matches had been fitful. After beating Ireland in the quarter-finals, they then lost to England in the semi-final.
New Zealand had scored more than 50 points in all four of their pool games and had beaten South Africa comfortably in the quarter-finals. Yet they had still not been at their best, and their tournament was ended in the semi-final by Australia.
Except, of course, they were still obliged to play in the third-place match. The best that could be said was that they seemed marginally more interested in being there than France. Against an under-strength French side they scored six tries to win easily.
2007. Quarter-final. Cardiff. New Zealand 18 France 20
As in 1995 and 1999, New Zealand were clear favourites after a pool stage in which they had won all their games at a canter. With the core of the side that had wiped the Lions 4-0 a couple of years earlier, they really did look unbeatable.
France, by contrast, had looked wretched at times, especially in their defeat by Argentina on the tournament’s opening day. That defeat meant they also surrendered home advantage in the quarter-finals, having granted Wales a game in exchange for support during the bid process.
However, it was the All Blacks who would come unstuck in the Millennium Stadium. They never really got their game in gear and were penalised heavily at the breakdown by Wayne Barnes, the English referee. There was outrage in the All Blacks’ camp after Barnes sin-binned Luke McAlister and failed to spot a forward pass in the winning try by Yannick Jauzion.
2011. Pool Stage. Auckland. New Zealand 37 France 17
The first meeting of the two sides in a World Cup pool match was anything but a nail-biter. France did put the All Blacks under pressure in the early stages, but the steam and belief went out of their game after Ma’a Nonu put in a trademark burst and scored a try after 19 minutes. Cory Jane extended the lead, and France’s body language suggested they knew the game was up.
Soon afterwards, Israel Dagg extended the All Blacks’ lead to 19-0 with the third try. From that point on, France seemed more interested in conserving their energy for the knockout stages, although they almost came unstuck when they lost to Tonga in the final pool game.
The mood in New Zealand was dampened a few days later when Dan Carter, their fly-half, was ruled out of the tournament by a groin injury. For France the signs were even worse. No team has ever won the tournament after losing a pool game. France have already lost two.