SYDNEY, Nov 14 (AFP) - All was set Friday for the weekend's World Cup semi-finals with New Zealand starting hot favourites to dethrone Australia in the battle of the south and England and France in a 50/50 game to decide the north's champion.
It's a mouth-savouring final four which was largely predicted when the draw was first made and for the first time in five weeks of rugby the results are far from being a foregone conclusion.
Australians are finally rallying around their world champion Wallabies as they head into the full force of the All Blacks might at the Olympic Stadium in Saturday's first game up.
Experienced Wallaby captain George Gregan scoffed at suggestions his side were in for a walloping.
"The game will be nip and tuck for 80 minutes," he said.
"Apart from the savaging we took in Sydney in the Tri-Nations (50-21) this year our matches generally go down to the wire and I expect this one to do so as well."
Coach Eddie Jones has indicated he has some some tactical tricks up his sleeve to derail the All Black machine but whatever he has in mind his misfiring back division will have to click into gear.
The New Zealanders are probably under more pressure from back home that any of the semi-finalists as rugby union is king there unlike in Australia, England or France.
Despite the legend that is the All Blacks, only once have they won rugby union's top prize and that was 16 years ago at the inaugural competition.
In the last two editions, they have been favourites and failed to deliver - in the 1995 final to South Africa in Johannesburg and famously to France in the 1999 semi-final in London.
All that has been digested, dissolved and put to rest insists skipper Reuben Thorne, a survivor of the Twickenham shipwreck.
"We are a better organised team than we were back then," Thorne said as his team prepared to fly in to Sydney from their Melbourne base.
"There's a really strong belief within the side that if things don't go well, we just carry on and get on with the job in hand."
On Sunday it will be a case of how much England have faded since their triumphs of earlier this year and how far France have progressed under the baton of coach Bernard Laporte.
England were given an allmighty shock against Wales in the quarter-finals while France simply swept Ireland aside and the money has been pouring on on the 1999 finalists.
But the crusty England XV are proven winners in big games, while France have players getting their first taste of such action at flyhalf, full-back and in the centre.
England coach Clive Woodward says the "real England" will show up for the game against France
"The players are more disappointed than anyone else," said Woodward who admitted his team had been struggling with their favourites tag.
"I think that in the back of our minds we have all been waiting
for this game. Sometimes it is not easy, when you are red hot favourites to play the underdogs. We have struggled in a few games."
France in the image of inspirational captain Fabien Galthie have adopted an almost Zen-like detachment from it all at their Bondi Beach base camp since arriving at the start of October and the results have been eloquent.
But they know it will be to no avail if they fall to the English like they did in this year's Six Nations. The tag of second-best in Europe would not be worn with satisfaction.
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