Keven Mealamu has paid a glowing tribute to New Zealand coach Graham Henry as the All Blacks supremo prepares for his final game at the helm with tomorrow’s World Cup final against France.
Henry will step down following the biggest match in New Zealand rugby history, guaranteed legendary status should the All Blacks end a 24-year wait for global domination.
And All Blacks star Mealamu, who will equal Sean Fitzpatrick’s record of 92 Test appearances as New Zealand’s most-capped hooker, has no doubt about former Wales coach Henry’s qualities.
“He has been a very special man on and off the field,” Mealamu said.
“I’ve learned a lot off him as a player, and he is quite a genuine man off the field as well.
“He really cares about the boys, so I know the boys will be wanting to put on a good performance for him this weekend.”
New Zealand are overwhelming favourites to be crowned world champions, but Mealamu maintains France will be tough nuts to crack despite an inconsistent World Cup campaign scarred by defeats against the All Blacks and Tonga.
“I don’t think they are underrated,” Mealamu insisted. “We haven’t underrated them. We know the challenge we have ahead of us.
“I know a lot of people have written them off, but we know how good they are. You just have to look at history to see how good they are.
“We will prepare well and make sure we are ready for the French because we know from history that we’ve failed against them.”
Henry, meanwhile, admits it would be “marvellous” to see his New Zealand team crowned world champions.
Despite being the world’s top team for several years, New Zealand have not won the World Cup since 1987 when they beat tomorrow’s opponents. But with Les Bleus struggling for form and the All Blacks fresh from a convincing semi-final victory over Australia, they will never get a better chance to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.
“I’ve been with a lot of these guys for a long time, and although they may be ranked the leading team in the world, they’ve never been world champions,” said Henry.
“It would be just marvellous to have that title because they’ve had every other title that is going in rugby apart from this one.
“So for (captain) Richie McCaw and the boys I think that would be fabulous. I think they are good enough, and that would be the icing on the cake.”
Henry has predictably retained the side that crushed Australia six days ago. The only switch is among the replacements, where flanker Adam Thomson has recovered from an ankle strain to take over from Victor Vito.
France wing Vincent Clerc says tomorrow’s showdown is “a dream final” for Les Bleus.
And while the Toulouse star accepts New Zealand are clear favourites to end a 24-year wait for world title glory, he has warned France’s doubters to beware.
“We understand all too well why the All Blacks are favoured,” he said.
“They are playing at home, and they will have a stadium jam-packed with New Zealanders.
“But we have not played the match yet. They are not world champions yet.
“I do not feel I am in the skin of a future loser, someone who can’t win. That is not how I feel at all.
“We are in the final and it does not matter what happened before. It is what happens now that counts.
“They (New Zealand) have their reasons for being confident. They have put in some great performances, and now maybe it is our turn to play our cards.
“We are capable of playing the match we need to play, and we are capable of beating the All Blacks.”
Despite a campaign underpinned by poor form and repeated reports of rifts between players and coach Marc Lievremont, Clerc insists there is no danger of France taking their collective eye off the ball.
“We do not need motivation and we do not have to look at what others are doing,” he added.
“We are in our own bubble, so it does not matter what the New Zealanders are doing in terms of their preparation.
“Little by little we are realising what we have achieved, and we have a huge opportunity. As the event draws nearer, the excitement is increasing.
“It will be a huge, huge rugby match, and we will have to put the heat on them.”
France: M Medard; V Clerc, A Rougerie, M Mermoz, A Palisson; M Parra, D Yachvili; J-B Poux, W Servat, N Mas, P Pape, L Nallet, T Dusautoir (capt), J Bonnaire, I Harinordoquy. Replacements: D Szarzewski, F Barcella, J Pierre, P Ouedraogo, J-M Doussain, F Trinh-Duc, D Traille.
New Zealand: I Dagg; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, R Kahui; A Cruden, P Weepu; T Woodcock, K Mealamu, O Franks, B Thorn, S Whitelock, J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), K Read. Replacements: A Hore, B Franks, A Williams, A Thomson, A Ellis, S Donald, S B Williams.
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).