Test Match Preview
NEW ZEALAND VS FRANCE
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Local time kick off 19:35, 07:35 GMT, SA Time – 09:35,
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), John Lacey (Ireland)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)
The 2017 British & Irish Lions gave the All Blacks an almighty scare. The drawn series with the Lions’ exposing the flaws in the All Blacks game by using the rush defence to shut down their playmakers, and deprive their runners of space gave the All Blacks much reason for rethinking the way they choose to play rugby.
Have no doubt that the All Blacks will have learned from the rush defence tactic perfected by the Lions, and then adopted by Australia, Scotland, and Wales when they played the All Blacks. We can expect to see some innovation from the All Blacks.
The visiting French are one of the most unpredictable teams in world rugby.
Without making light of a very serious medical disorder, the French rugby team could be the sporting equivalent of someone who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, they display the most unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out the rugby tasks required of them.
Sometimes the team reaches the lowest of the low one day, with a complete disinterest in proceedings, lethargy on the field, and an inability to do even the very basics correctly, and then they achieve the highest of the high the very next day, with sublime skills, total focus, and frenetic activity levels.
Sometimes they can swing between these two extremes in one game!
Shall we just say that they are temperamental?
They have struggled against the All Blacks in recent Tests, but have proven over the years that, when they are focused, they can and do provide the men in all-black strip headaches of monstrous proportions. So much so that they are often called the All Blacks’ bogey side!
It would be no surprise to anyone if the French went close one week and fell apart the next.
However, missing their inspirational captain and hooker, Guilhem Guirado, together with the absence of some of the regular first choices in other positions such as Louis Picamole, might just hurt a team that is already likely to be a little less than confident in New Zealand.
If the French get hammered in the 1st Test, then an All Black whitewash is on the cards.
New Zealand have dominated this fixture in recent years, winning the last 11 Tests between these countries, six of which were played in New Zealand. Facing the world champions in their own backyard is arguably the toughest task in world rugby. Their 24-21 loss to the British and Irish Lions in Wellington last year was their first defeat on home soil since losing to South Africa in September 2009 and I don’t envisage another loss this June.
This is not going to be an easy tour for the men from France, and this first Test is likely to be the toughest assignment of their year.
Two families make-up a third of the composition of the All Black starting team. For the first time three men from the same family will start a test together: Beauden, Scott and Jordie of the Barrett clan will achieve this remarkable record on Saturday. And they are not alone! There’s captain Sam Whitelock and his younger brother Luke to add extraordinary emphasis to the influence of genetics in the rugby world.
As someone said: “There must be some decent water flowing into the taps on the farms on the North Island’s lower west coast.” Both the Barretts and the Whitelocks are from that area!
Six changes have been made to the side that ran out to face Wales, and beat them 33-18, in Cardiff last November. Props Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala, lock Patrick Tuipulotu and midfielder Sonny Bill Williams are injured, wing Naholo has been left out completely and McKenzie, who started fullback that day, is on the bench.
Sam Whitelock, having recovered from concussion, will lead the side for the first time in New Zealand.
Jordie Barrett starts in the No.15 jersey in an interesting back three that has Rieko Ioane on the left wing and Ben Smith on the right.
The halfback pairing of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett will start, with Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown in the midfield.
Thomas Perenara, Damian McKenzie and Ngani Laumape provide back cover off the bench.
The All Black front row will be Owen Franks and Joe Moody as props and Codie Taylor at hooker.
With Brodie Retallick out because of a chest injury, the All Blacks will see Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett to start in the second row, with Vaea Fifita to provide back-up off the bench. Fifita adds considerable impact potential to the bench as he can play both lock and blindside flanker.
Liam Squire is at blindside flank, with Sam Cane at openside and Luke Whitelock at No.8.
Amongst the replacements, new All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe is set to make his All Blacks debut off the bench. Ofa Tuungafasi and Nathan Harris are the other front row run-on replacements. Vaea Fifita and Ardie Savea will provide loose forward impact off the bench.
France head coach Jacques Brunel has named his side that will face New Zealand in Auckland on Saturday, with Morgan Parra at scrum-half.
Parra returns to the les Bleus team after three years away and lines up alongside Anthony Belleau in the half-backs for the meeting at Eden Park.
Geoffrey Doumayrou and Mathieu Bastareaud form the midfield while Remy Grosso and Teddy Thomas are on the wings. Maxime Medard is 15.
Up front there are starts in Auckland at loosehead prop for Dany Priso and tighthead prop for Uini Atonio, who are either side of hooker Camille Chat.
Paul Gabrillagues and Yoann Maestri are in the second-row while Judicaël Cancoriet, Kelian Gourdon and Fabien Sanconnie will start in the back-row.
The All Blacks will have spent some time thinking about the changes they need to make to counter the expected rush defence that France will bring to the game. (The French have telegraphed their intent, saying that they have looked to last year’s Lions for guidance on how to beat the All Blacks!)
Not that we can expect to see too much change from the home side – they will still attack you at every opportunity; they will carry the ball into wide spaces as much as possible; and they will work to take the ball away from contact areas. They will look to win the collisions and turn the ball over as much as possible.
But we can also expect to see them make use of a lot more tactical kicking. They will work to negate the rush defence system that France is sure to attempt, and they will do that with tactical kicks, chips, grubbers, and kick-passes. We can also expect the use of more decoy runners and inside passes.
The choice of Jordie Barrett at fullback, with Ben Smith preferred on the wing also telegraphs the All Blacks intent. If they had gone with the more expected trio of Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, and Ben Smith the French would have figured that the All Blacks would run everything back at them. They would also have thought to target the Naholo wing under the high ball as he is perceived to have a slight weakness when receiving kicks. The choice of a back three of Ioane, Smith and Barrett keeps them guessing, and there is no perception of there being a weak link under the high ball to target and exploit.
Of course, the selection of this back three is also a recognition of the changing nature of the game at the highest level. One of the best ways to subdue the inevitable rush defence is to kick more.
Test rugby is as much about kicking and catching as it is passing and running.
The selection of Jordie Barrett at fullback is designed to give the All Blacks an increased aerial threat so they can ramp up their offensive kicking game.
Smith is undoubtedly the best kick-chaser in world rugby and Barrett, as he showed against the British Lions, has the height, athleticism and agility to get above defenders and be a threat on the cross-kick ploy.
Barrett also brings a siege-gun boot of his own which also gives the All Blacks more firepower and options in the backfield.
The French also have game-breakers like Mathieu Bastareaud, and Teddy Thomas amongst their back division, but they seem just a little light at the back and with Remy Grosso in the 11 jersey. The return of Morgan Parra at scrumhalf is a difficult one to assess as he has been out of the international game for a three years.
The two sets of tight forwards appear just a little unequal, with a seed of doubt about Camille Chat at hooker. He has played in the shadow of Guilhem Guirado for a long time and his credentials at the very top of the game are unproven. Sam Whitelock is perhaps the best lock forward currently playing in the world, while Scott Barrett is a very able substitute for Brodie Retallick. Up against Yoann Maestri and Paul Gabrillagues, the All Blacks probably have the better second row.
Amongst the loose forwards, the French will miss the influence of Louis Picamole, so often the leader by example when the ball is being chased or the defensive chips are down. The All Black trio look far more settled, with a certain menace in the way Liam Squire is playing at the moment.
This encounter is more about the All Blacks adjusting their game to modern threats than it is about the French having the firepower to unseat them.
So much depends on which French team arrives at Eden Park on Saturday. If they are swinging low, they will get thumped, if they are on a high, they could make life difficult for the All Blacks.
I do expect some ring-rust from the All Blacks, especially in the first half, that is always their way. But I expect them to have far too much firepower in almost every department, and they have an exciting bench to unleash later in the game.
The All Blacks, by at least 15 points.
New Zealand: 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 (captain), 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Thomas Perenara, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Ngani Laumape
France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud (c), 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Remy Grosso, 10 Anthony Belleau, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fabien Sanconnie, 7 Kelian Gourdon, 6 Judicaël Cancoriet, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Dany Priso
Replacements: 16 Adrien Pélissié, 17 Cyril Baille, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Bernard Le Roux, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Gael Fickou