Nervous times for Kiwis as fearless Wales relish semi
Auckland, North Island
We can quantify so many of the key variables in rugby - points, tackles, turnovers, possession, penalties. But in these last few frantic hours before this weekend's World Cup semi-finals, the great rogue factor is suddenly alive in the Auckland air: confidence.
Supporters of all four nations have been pouring into town since Wednesday, almost all of them with beaming smiles on their chops to go with the pint pots in their hands. The exceptions are those wearing black shirts, the ones who, by those statistics that can be stacked up, should be the happiest of all.
New Zealand is nervous. New Zealand is worried. New Zealand is starting to think the whole horrible World Cup nightmare might be about to happen all over again.
The knock-out stages are traditionally a bad time for All Blacks fans, the point where four years of world domination come crashing down in a flurry of intercepted passes, dramatic injuries to key men and moments of heart-breaking brilliance from opposition backs.
That would be to misjudge the Kiwi rugby psyche. This is worse - far, far worse.
If losing to Australia in the Sydney semi of 2003 felt bad, and the defeat by Australia in Dublin back in 1991 stank to the stars, just imagine this: losing to the Wallabies - coached by a Kiwi, Robbie Deans, and with Kiwi-born and raised Quade Cooper pulling the strings - in their own backyard, at a tournament they are paying for and cannot, whatever happens, avoid if it all goes wrong.
The message from the fans for the New Zealand team is clear. Photo: Getty
It's been the doomsday scenario on every New Zealander's mind ever since they won the Cup's hosting rights.
"It's almost the perfect storm," says Bill Williams, from the national rugby museum in New Plymouth. "And look what happened to the blokes in that.
"Australia are our biggest threat. By the time kick-off time comes round on Sunday, there'll be a lot of very anxious people in this country.
"I can't even face watching it in a bar, in case we go out. I'd rather commit suicide quietly at home."
If that sounds extreme, it's the same jittery story everywhere you go asking.
"If we lose, it would be black armbands time," says Nicki, working the official All Blacks store on Queen Street in the middle of Auckland. "We've been waiting for this moment for eight years.
"I was living in London in 1991, and the Aussies were insufferable. It's almost unthinkable that they could beat us again. It would kill the party stone dead."
What of those on the front line? "The English language would have to grow some new words to describe how I'd feel," the chap at the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra, the heart of enemy territory, tells me. "I'm not meant to talk to you about this, but you'd have to invent some new syllables."
The contrast with the other camps is marked. Four teams might have a chance of making the final, but only one is expected to.
The Aussies are relaxed and punchy, buoyed by their remarkable wriggle past the Springboks in last weekend's quarter-finals. Cooper brushes away the awkward questions in news conferences far more successfully that he has escaped opposition tacklers so far, revelling in his role as public enemy number one and teasing the native newsmen with tales of his Kiwi grandmother in the Northland town of Kaikohe.
"She sends me a lot of text messages that all her friends from her local bowls club are right behind me," he grins, "so that gives you a very heart-warming boost of confidence."
The French should be feeling as twitchy as their hosts. This is their sixth semi-final in seven World Cups, their fifth on the bounce, but they have lost three of them. No team has ever won the trophy after losing in the pool stages, and France went down twice.
Compared to the civil war of a few weeks ago, however, there is now an atmosphere of relative calm, with skipper Thierry Dusatoir even enjoying a little dig at the old enemy when remembering the semi-final defeat of 2007: "Then, we had beaten the best team in the world, the All Blacks, who had been undefeated in years and who were the big favourites. This time, we have beaten England, so it's a little different."
And Wales? While nerves may be clanging back home, the squad out here are smiling, joking, and - get this, England - talking about their biggest match in 24 years with a genuine sense of excitement.
"The younger guys like George (North) and Toby (Faletau) don't talk about pressure, they talk about excitement and how they love playing on the big stage," says captain Sam Warburton.
"It wasn't so long ago that they were in school watching the massive games. That is why they are playing with no fear."
If only it were so uncomplicated for the hosts. Until you've travelled round New Zealand, it's hard to appreciate quite how caught up the country is in the 24-year quest to regain the Webb-Ellis trophy.
In the cities, almost every shop or business you stroll past has a huge sign in the window exhorting the team to victory. Billboards across Auckland have been taken over by the big companies blaring out how they're backing the boys.
Out in the sticks, silver fern flags are everywhere - hanging on garden fences, flapping from the roofs of trucks and cars, festooned around verandas and café windows.
The support is almost overwhelming. So too is the pressure and expectation that goes with it. Front pages of newspapers have been dominated by the state of Richie McCaw's foot.
McCaw will play on Sunday despite ongoing concerns with a foot injury. Picture: AFP/Getty
The current crop of All Blacks stars have sounded almost wistful this week. "I wish all that support could put points on the board for us," said centre Conrad Smith, "but unfortunately it doesn't. We've been loving it, but obviously it adds a bit to the intensity."
What steer do the cold hard stats give us?
France's long-term form against Wales suggests they start as favourites. While the overall record could barely be closer - Wales have won 43 of their 88 meetings, France 42 - Les Bleus have won 10 of the past 13 matches.
Eleven of France's starting line-up on Saturday played in the last contest against Wales, the 28-9 win in this year's Six Nations. Ten of Wales' starting line-up played too.
Against that stands the Welsh form of the last month. Nothing Warburton and his brave boys have done in New Zealand suggests history hurts them at all.
As for the Aussies - well, while the All Blacks have all the history - 96 wins to 41, with five draws - the Wallabies have the most recent edge, winning two of the last three matches.
"It's the biggest game a lot of my team have played in, quite frankly," says All Blacks coach Graham Henry, with disarming honestly. "The guys have been a bit quieter than normal, probably because it's such a huge game."
If the Kiwi camp is quiet, the host city is not. There is barely a hotel room available for miles, while the bars lining Viaduct Harbour are bursting at the pumps.
If the locals don't seem to mind the commotion, there is one phrase none of them want to hear come Sunday night.
Four more years? It would feel like forever.