Test Match Preview
NEW ZEALAND VS FRANCE
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Local time kick off 19:35, 07:35 GMT, SA Time – 09:35
New Zealand vs France at Westpac Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Luke Pearce (England)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)
The issue that has burned in the media and on social pages all week continues as the second Test between the All Blacks and the French looms. The high tackles and the perceived favouritism and lack of sanction dished out to All Blacks versus the sanctions applied to the rest of the world has occupied the minds, the tongues, and the keyboards across the rugby playing world.
Steve Hansen has worked hard to try and deflect attention and avoid talking about the real issue that bothers the world: Do the All Blacks get special treatment or not?
Hansen has chosen to focus only on the incident involving Sam Cane, Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Grosso’s head. He has tried very hard to suggest that it was all accidental and not terribly serious. Just one of those things……
He said: “Someone gave me a good analogy this morning, actually. Sometimes when you’re driving your car and you’re driving at the speed limit and then a little kid runs out in front of you – is that the kid’s fault or your fault?
“In our game things are fluid and change and you can’t stop something you’ve committed to and someone’s angle changes. We have to accept there are going to be some head knocks. In saying that, we’ve got a duty to make sure we don’t do the dumb ones – get them out of our game.”
It has been Hansen’s line that it was actually Grosso’s fault as he ducked into Tu’ungafasi’s shoulder.
Sorry Steve, but it did not look like that to me, or anyone else who watched the game without a pair of silver fern-adorned blinkers attached to our faces.
The second Test is likely to carry some needle, even if both sides are talking it down at the moment. Just a year ago the British & Irish Lions took on the All Blacks at the same venue and beat them, their first home loss since 2009. This will rankle with the All Blacks and offer a glimmer of hope to the French.
Even if the French team do not take to the field with revenge in mind, it serves everyone to remember that no team in the world has the same capacity to surprise and upset the All Blacks like the French. They have been the All Blacks’ bogey side for a very long time.
Last week’s massive score was perhaps a little flattering to the All Blacks, although they did produce some seriously stylish rugby for about 30 minutes of that game.
What can we expect this week?
A week ago the visiting French team took the All Blacks on at the set-pieces and in the collisions and over the ball. They pushed the All Blacks right to the edge in the first half, and were still well in it when Paul Gabrillagues was yellow-carded. From that moment on the All Blacks assumed command of the ball and the game.
Will it be different this week?
Steve Hansen has named an unchanged team ahead of the All Blacks’ second Test against France in Wellington on Saturday.
France have made five changes to their starting line-up.
Benjamin Fall and Gael Fickou come into the backline for Maxime Médard and Remy Grosso.
Up front there’s a start at lock for Bernard le Roux while Mathieu Babillot and Kélian Galletier come in as France’s flankers this weekend.
Kelian Gourdon has been moved to number eight for the match while Morgan Parra and Anthony Belleau continue as the half-back duo.
France’s replacements bench now includes hooker Pierre Bourgarit and prop Cedate Gomes Sa.
There are a number of truths that need considering when we talk about France’s chances on unseating the world champions in this second Test. First and foremost, except for a sublime 30 minutes, the All Blacks were no more than mediocre in that 1st Test. They gave France hope, and they gave them focus. We also know that when a mediocre All Blacks find their game, they become something very different.
History has also taught us that the All Blacks are slow starters in any first Tet of any season. They will find their feet, and then there is likely to be trouble for the opposition.
No matter the impact of the yellow card or lack of cards, and the injury to a player, the All Blacks were always likely to ignite at some stage, and the way they exploded against France was of such intensity that even 14 All Blacks were likely to run the French ragged.
The second truth to consider: When the pace of the game kicked up a gear or two, the French could not stay with the All Blacks. An illustration of the difference of the pace and intensity of the French Top 14 measured against Super Rugby.
The third truth: If France want to challenge the All Blacks this week they will need a repeat of their first half of last week. Their forwards will need to powerful and accurate in every phase of play. Their backs will need to be fully focussed on shutting down the All Black playmakers and keeping them on the back foot as much as possible.
And I am not sure that this French team has that extra in them that asks for the performance of the 1st half to be carried through right up to the final whistle.
They have made changes, and they must be hoping that the slightly fresher legs of Kelian Galletier and Mathieiu Babillot on the flanks will give them the extra pace to the ball and on the cover. The choice of a flanker as a lock must be questioned too. Bernard le Roux is good, but is he good enough to challenge Whitelock and Barrett in the lineouts?
The fourth truth: The All Blacks will undoubtedly have learned from their performances last week. They are too good a side, and too well coached to ignore the faults, mistakes, and misfiring of last week. They will have worked at fixing them.
They’ve made no personnel changes this week, and that suggests that they are satisfied that their team is starting to gel as a unit.
We know that they are very good at preparing for a game. We know that they will have analysed every single aspect of the French game. They will have looked at strengths and weaknesses, and identified the opportunities and threats. We also know that they do not assume anything at all about their opponents. They know what to expect, but they do not assume that it will simply happen!
We even know that they prepared for the unexpected. Part of their training and preparation includes working out how to play the game if they lose a player to a yellow or red card!
The point is that the All Blacks take nothing for granted.
Expect anything, assume nothing.
“One of the big lessons we learned is if you don’t plan for the unexpected you’re going to get smacked by it,” Hansen said as he prepared his team for Saturday’s second test against France.
Some truths that should worry the French!
I am expecting a far more focussed, far more clinical All Black performance this week. Last week was the warm-up, shaking off the rust and finding each other, this week will be the oiling of the gears and the tightening of the nuts and bolts.
The French are likely to be motivated somewhat by the chagrin of the world after the card/no card furore of last week. They will even feel they have a slight moral edge. They will also be expecting the referee, Angus Gardner, to be far stricter on the All Blacks in a subconscious reaction to the week’s fire and brimstone.
They will sense an opportunity to knock over the All Blacks if they are vaguely hesitant at the tackle or contact point.
Not that the All Blacks are likely to hesitate, that is not the way they are bred.
And then there is the tiny problem of fatigue after a very long French season, the pace of the southern hemispherean game, and then the coup de grâce, although I am not sure it is really a mercy blow in the true sense of the phrase, the impact of the All Blacks’ unbelievable bench.
The All Blacks will win, by around 25 points.
All Blacks – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock (c), 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Ngani Laumape.
France: 15 Benjamin Fall, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud (c), 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Gael Fickou, 10 Anthony Belleau, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Kelian Gourdon, 7 Kélian Galletier, 6 Mathieu Babillot, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Bernard le Roux, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Dany Priso
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Cyril Baille, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Maxime Médard