France, All Blacks on for Cardiff reunion at Rugby World Cup

CARDIFF, Wales (AP) New Zealand vs. France in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on a Saturday night.

Sound familiar?

Eight years after the French pulled off one of the most memorable World Cup wins by beating the All Blacks in Cardiff, the two teams will meet again in 2015.

Same stage, same venue, same day of the week.

”We wanted to play New Zealand,” France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said, laughing, after a 24-9 loss to Ireland consigned his team to second place in Pool D and a meeting with the best team in the world.

”Of course New Zealand are favorites,” Saint-Andre added, in a more serious tone, ”but in a game of rugby, you never know.”

That should be the catchphrase of the French.

One game irresistible, the next unexplainable, France is the most unpredictable team in world rugby and seems to raise its game against New Zealand. Twelve victories in 55 tests against the All Blacks – a win percentage of 22.72 – is very impressive, easily the best of the northern hemisphere countries.

In 1999, France upstaged New Zealand by winning 43-31 in a World Cup semifinal at Twickenham with one of the most flamboyant displays the tournament has witnessed. In 2011, the heavily favored All Blacks scraped past the French 8-7 in the World Cup final on their hallowed home turf at Eden Park.

All Blacks great Sean Fitzpatrick predicted next weekend’s fixture will ”spook” his country.

”Am I worried? A bit,” Fitzpatrick told British newspaper The Sunday Times, adding that there are echoes from eight years ago because of New Zealand’s easy run in the pool stage.

France captain Thierry Dusautoir gets another run at New Zealand in Cardiff, eight years after making 38 tackles in that unforgettable 2007 quarterfinal. That was two tackles more than the whole of New Zealand’s team made in total.

”As long as you are in the race, you have reasons to believe,” Dusautoir said. ”I have played 11 or 12 times against the All Blacks, and not once we have been favorites. But it didn’t stop us from beating them (in 2007) and the last time we were really close to beating them (in 2011).

”But eight years ago, it was a different context, a different team. This team today has a different history, different experiences. We don’t need to look back at what we did then.”

The French will have to deliver a more accurate and rounded display than they did against Ireland if they are to reach a fifth straight World Cup semifinal.

They dropped off the pace alarmingly in the second half against Ireland, overwhelmed by the aggression of their opponents and the passion of an Irish-dominated crowd under the Millennium Stadium’s closed roof.

The statistics were damning. Ireland enjoyed 72 percent territory overall – 97 percent in the last 10 minutes – and 69 percent possession overall. This without three of its best players in Paul O’Connell, Jonny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony, who all went off injured inside 55 minutes.

”After 60 minutes, we were dominated, particularly in the rucks, and we couldn’t get any clean ball,” Saint-Andre said. ”That means it becomes complicated in an intense match when you are always defending.

”Ireland were quite exceptional and disciplined in all the phases of play.”

One of rugby’s great tinkerers, Saint-Andre has kept alterations in personnel to a minimum this World Cup but he said that could change ahead of the quarterfinals.

Will he keep faith with flyhalf Frederic Michalak, who failed to make an impression against Ireland? Will Morgan Parra, a more consistent goal-kicker, return at scrumhalf?

”We need to regroup, prepare and get ready for a huge fight against the All Blacks,” Saint-Andre said.