All Blacks can end long wait for Webb Ellis Cup

FRANCE vs NEW ZEALAND

SUNDAY – 9.00AM ITV1

AFTER seven weeks of scintillating rugby, New Zealand are just one game away from being crowned world champions. The All Blacks meet France at Eden Park in a repeat of the inaugural final 24 years ago, looking to lift the sport’s ultimate prize for the second time in their history.

Graham Henry’s side have steamrolled their way to the final and their performance against Australia was near perfect. As the competition has progressed, they have grown in strength and risen above the injury to talisman Dan Carter. Captain Richie McCaw, who had been unable to train through the week due to a foot injury, led by example and was magnificent against the Wallabies. And in Carter’s place Aaron Cruden has stepped into the fly-half role and looks like he has been in the side for years.

So far, the All Blacks have racked up 293 points, 39 tries and six consecutive victories, while receiving just one yellow card in the process.

In contrast, France’s route to the final has been anything but plain sailing with two defeats already. One of those was of course the 37-17 hammering in Pool A to New Zealand. In addition to those losses there has been continuous in-fighting and they narrowly edged past an inspired Wales side, who were reduced to 14 men for the majority of the match.

Marc Lievremont’s mercurial French side can however be an awesome force on their day – and the Kiwis know that better than anyone after being eliminated by them at the 1999 and 2007 World Cups in two epic encounters.

On current form it would be easy to think that the All Blacks will run away with it, but the previous finals suggest otherwise. There have been 182 points scored in the six finals to date, at an average of 30.33 points per game. During that period there have been only ten tries scored – and four of those came in the 1987 showdown. With the weight of a nation and the pressure of a final on them, the game looks set to be far closer and I’m happy to take the French with the +16 handicap at 10/11 with Ladbrokes. It should also be worth selling the total points spread at 39 with Sporting Index.

The final four years ago was dominated by the boot and given France’s inability to break the try line, they may well be tempted to take points from drop kicks. With that in mind the 11/10 Paddy Power are offering for a drop goal in the contest looks an appealing bet.

MANCHESTER UNITED vs MANCHESTER CITY

SUNDAY – 1.30PM SKY SPORTS

IT is far too early to start talking about a title decider, but the start of this season has suggested it’s going to be a three-way battle for the title between the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. Both United and City are unbeaten after the opening eight encounters and the blue half of Manchester have dropped just two points so far.

Home advantage has a huge impact in these big clashes and it’s no surprise that United, City and Chelsea all have 100% home records in the league this campaign.

The Red Devils have been in unbelievable form at Old Trafford, winning 19 consecutive matches and by at least two goals in the last five. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve won their last six home contests against top-six opponents and all of those victories have come by the HT/FT double result.

City will have been delighted to have notched their first Champions League victory against Villarreal in midweek, but it wasn’t an impressive performance. However, they’ve won seven of their eight league games and will be very difficult to beat on Sunday.

It is going to be intriguing to see what tactics Roberto Mancini adopts. He was quite negative against the best teams last season, but he certainly has the ammunition at his disposal to take the game to United.

One slight worry for City fans is that they have lost five of nine away games at top-six sides under Mancini. They thrashed Tottenham at White Hart Lane in August, but they haven’t had any other real tests on the road so far this term.

I was tempted to back the draw at around 5/2, but I just can’t resist the general 11/10 on offer about a home win. It would be no surprise to see both teams get on the scoresheet, so I’ll be taking the 15/2 with Ladbrokes for a 2-1 United win, as well as buying goals at 2.9 with Sporting Index.