/ Rugby

Mealamu salutes departing Henry

Updated: Friday, 21 Oct 2011 18:49

Graham Henry has predictably retained the side that crushed Australia five days ago
Graham Henry has predictably retained the side that crushed Australia five days ago

Keven Mealamu has paid a glowing tribute to New Zealand coach Graham Henry as the All Blacks supremo prepares for his final game at the helm - Sunday's World Cup final against France.

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Henry will step down following the biggest match in New Zealand rugby history, guaranteed legendary status should the All Blacks end a 24-year wait for global domination.

And All Blacks star Mealamu, who will equal Sean Fitzpatrick's record of 92 Test appearances as New Zealand's most-capped hooker, has no doubt about former Wales coach Henry's qualities.

"He has been a very special man on and off the field," Mealamu said.

"I've learnt a lot off him as a player, and he is quite a genuine man off the field as well.

"He really cares about the boys, so I know the boys will be wanting to put on a good performance for him this weekend."

New Zealand are overwhelming favourites to be crowned world champions, but Mealamu maintains France will be tough nuts to crack despite an inconsistent World Cup campaign scarred by defeats against the All Blacks and Tonga.

"I don't think they are under-rated," Mealamu insisted. "We haven't under-rated them. We know the challenge we have ahead of us.

"I know a lot of people have written them off, but we know how good they are. You just have to look at history to see how good they are.

"We will prepare well and make sure we are ready for the French because we know from history that we've failed against them."

Mealamu's theme is readily taken up by centre Ma'a Nonu, who said: "France have been slammed and been under-rated, and that is when the French play their best rugby - when their backs are against the wall.

"This is the biggest occasion every four years for rugby, and we've always fallen short in either the semis or quarter-finals.

"We've always tried to find ways to answer why we've fallen over, you know, where we play well one year and then when it comes to the World Cup we don't really make it to the end.

"I don't know, people always say we peak too early, and there have always been reasons why we haven't won during those years. I think this is probably our best chance and we want to take it.

"For us as players we are lucky that we are here, and we want to take it on. There's a lot of pressure, and there has been all year.

"That is why we play rugby, because we want to do it, and that was our dream. As kids we wanted to be All Blacks."

Henry, meanwhile, admits it would be "marvellous" to see his New Zealand team crowned world champions.

Despite being the world's top team for several years, New Zealand have not won the World Cup since 1987 when they beat Sunday's opponents.

But with Les Bleus struggling for form and the All Blacks fresh from a thoroughly convincing semi-final victory over Australia, they will never get a better chance to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.

"I've been with a lot of these guys for a long time, and although they may be ranked the leading team in the world, they've never been world champions," Henry said.

"It would be just marvellous to have that title because they've had every other title that is going in rugby apart from this one.

"So for [captain] Richie McCaw and the boys I think that would be fabulous. I think they are good enough, and that would be the icing on the cake."