Millennium Stadium to offer unique atmosphere
Sometimes things just come together. On 6 October 2007, France decamped to Cardiff to face New Zealand in the quarter finals of their own Rugby World Cup. An opening day loss to Argentina condemned Les Bleus to playing their last eight tie against the favourites on neutral ground, but out of their initial misfortune came the opportunity to rewrite the history books in one of rugby’s most evocative stadiums.
The Millennium Stadium hosted the Rugby World Cup Final in 1999 and will be back on duty in 2015, with eight matches including two quarter finals to be held in the Welsh capital. Travelling fans can expect a special day at the home of Welsh rugby, with its retractable roof, city-centre location and thriving pubs perfectly suited to hosting the great and good of the sport.
As France and New Zealand descended on Cardiff for their make-or-break tie, their fans did likewise. Prior to kick-off opposite ends of the city were decked out in black or blue, with an impromptu game of up and under breaking out on St Mary Street before a throng of French fans had their rendition of La Marseillaise answered by a 30-strong haka from the All Blacks’ travelling support.
From there, the theatre moved inside. Very few Wales matches have produced an atmosphere as electric as this one, with flashbulbs illuminating the field and the songs of both sets of fans reverberating off the stadium’s closed roof. The pre-match fireworks reached a memorable crescendo as the French squad stood a metre from the haka, the players staring eye-to-eye as the challenge was accepted.
What followed exemplified all that makes knockout rugby so thrilling. It was a topsy-turvy affair, replete with heroism, high drama and controversy. New Zealand entered the match as heavy favourites, having cruised through the pool stages with four bonus-point wins and 309 points scored. They started the quarter final in the same vein.
The pendulum swings
Luke McAlister and Dan Carter combined for the first try, after France had lost Serge Betsen to a head injury early on, and the All Blacks went in at half-time with a handy 10-point lead. McAlister, so assured in the early stages, opened the door to France just after the restart with a block on Yannick Jauzion. His yellow card would begin the match’s descent into a nail-biting finale.
Thierry Dusautoir – who contributed one of the finest individual performances in the history of the tournament – wriggled free to score France’s first try and while Rodney So’oialo crashed through several tackles to restore New Zealand’s lead, the introduction of Frédéric Michalak from the bench ensured one last pendulum swing.
A dab on the gas from the replacement fly half opened enough space for Jauzion to scamper along the touchline to score the winning try, although the apparent forward pass in the build-up became a raw wound for All Blacks fans to nurse until their revenge in the final of Rugby World Cup 2011.
Stunned All Blacks’ supporters sat in the stands for some time after the final whistle, reflecting on their side’s failure to make the semi finals for the first time in the tournament’s history. France celebrated, with one eye on a semi final with England, this time back on home soil in Paris.
As with their seminal victory over New Zealand in 1999, this occasion proved to be too much for France to follow up. It’s not difficult to understand why. The match represented a perfect storm for rugby fans, with two of the sport’s greatest rivals playing a high-stakes match in a stadium, and atmosphere, that would go toe-to-toe with any of the world’s great arenas.
At Rugby World Cup 2015, New Zealand and France will both return to Cardiff during the pool stages of the tournament. There they will be joined by Wales – for matches against Oceania 1 and the Repechage Winner – along with Australia and Ireland. The Millennium Stadium is all set for a new slate of classic encounters.