Rugby World Cup final 2011: New Zealand unchanged for France clash

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer

New Zealand will field an unchanged side as they seek to win their first World Cup in 24 years.

The All Blacks are hot favourites to beat France in Sunday's final at Eden Park, but coach Graham Henry insisted that his team do not see it that way.

"Picking the same side that played so well against Australia wasn't a difficult decision," said Henry.

"We're not sure who's going to turn up. We have to prepare as if they're the best in the world."

The only change to the All Blacks 22 sees flanker Adam Thomson, who has recovered from an ankle knock, replace Victor Vito on the bench.

The excitement in New Zealand - already at fever pitch after the 20-6 defeat of the Wallabies in last Sunday's semi-final - has cranked up another notch in the last few days as the country's biggest sporting event in almost quarter of a century draws closer.

"We haven't this experienced before - it's finals football," added Henry.

"This is our 12th Test in 14 weeks, and I don't think that's ever happened before. It's been pretty manic, and constant rugby takes its toll on your body and mind.

"The word is that France have prepared well and that they're enjoying the underdogs tag, using it as ammunition. You [the media] are doing a good job for them.

"We think they're a very good rugby team with some outstanding players, and it's going to be very difficult.

"The French forward pack is as good as we've played in the competition. Their loose forwards are outstanding and they have backs who can bite you."

Scrum-half Piri Weepu, one of the stars of New Zealand's march to the final, admitted that the tension had built now that, in the words of his team-mate Israel Dagg, the final is "just two more sleeps" away.

"When you're a little kid in the back yard you're always pretending that you're playing for your country, scoring the winning try and kicking the winning penalty," said Weepu.

"If you take it too seriously you'll already have played the game in your head at the start of the week. You need to have a clear head on Sunday, because the more relaxed a state you are in the better game you play.

"I have never really experienced anything as big as this before. You can't wait to wake up on game day - you can feel buzz in the air and the excitement around town. You can feel the energy when you go down for breakfast and see the excitement on the faces of the boys."

The final is likely to be Henry's last game in charge of the All Blacks. Four years ago he was at the helm for the shock quarter-final loss to France, but he has cut a relaxed figure this month.

Asked what a World Cup win would mean to him, he said: "Peace. Internal peace. My mum's still alive - she's 95 now - and she'll be delighted when it finishes, because she thinks I'm under pressure. She doesn't understand I don't do much.

"My wife will be rejoicing. When you're close to people doing the job but not involved yourself, it can be a very difficult situation to be in.

"The people who are close to you will feel big relief when this World Cup is over. I have got two boys and a daughter and they were in Cardiff in 2007. They arrived on the Friday night before the finals [knock-out stages] and 24 hours later it was all over. The meeting of that group of people on the Sunday morning was a very emotional time.

"I am just hoping we can get together on Sunday night and things might be a bit different."

Henry added: "I might be tired, but the body's not sore. I've been with a lot of these guys for a long time - they have been the leading team in world, but they've never been world champions, and it would be marvellous to have that title.

"You don't deserve that title unless you earn it, but I think we're good enough."

New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu; Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Brad Thorn, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (capt), Kieran Read.

Replacements: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Adam Thomson, Andy Ellis, Stephen Donald, Sonny Bill Williams.