CASTRES, FRANCE – Dan Carter is set to win his 99th All Black cap, while skipper Richie McCaw returns to his favoured number 7 slot when a mighty New Zealand side face France at Stade de France on Saturday.
It is being regarded in France as something of a backhanded compliment that the World Champions are fielding such a powerful side against Les more-mercurial-than-ever Bleus – though that’s probably because New Zealand have one eye on the record books as opposed to the strength of the opposition.
It’s true that the tourists are fielding the most experienced team in their history, with a total of 853 caps in the starting 15 and a further 112 caps warming the bench. It’s also true that eight first-choice players didn’t make the trip to Tokyo for last week’s 54-6 victory over Japan, so they would be fit and raring to go for the weekend’s match.
But Steve Hansen’s side are defending an 11-match perfect record this season and – with England and Ireland to come after Saturday’s game – are three matches away from becoming the first New Zealand side in history to go an entire calendar year without defeat.
They are also closing in on the world record for most consecutive Test rugby wins in a row (18) currently held by that ahem, Colossus of the game, Lithuania. They were within two wins when Australia held them to that 18-18 draw in Brisbane last October, prompting the Baltic nation of 3 million people to officially thank Australia for preventing New Zealand, overtaking their mark.
Not that Hansen is talking records. He said: “France are one of our great rugby foes and there is a rich history of matches between our two countries, so we are certainly looking forward to this weekend.
“In the end it was a pretty easy team to pick,” he said. “It’s pretty consistent with what we’ve been running with most of the year.”
The talk in France is not on records, either. Despite talk that they have the wood on New Zealand, their record against the All Blacks is dismal. In 54 encounters they have won just 11. It’s the timing and nature of some of those 11 wins – two in the knockout phases of World Cups and THAT brutal encounter in Nantes – that has allowed the myth to develop.
Instead, pundits, experts and armchair fans are focusing on the home side’s halfback pairing of Morgan Parra and Remi Tales as they try to stop the New Zealand juggernaut recording an eighth win over them in a row.
Scrum-half Parra hasn’t played since he was banned for punching during a Top 14 game against Bordeaux, and is only available after his punishment was cut from four matches to two on appeal.
Castres captain Tales, meanwhile, won both of his caps on this summer’s New Zealand tour, when he impressed in patches despite Les Bleus losing 30-0 and 24-9. The two have not played together in France colours.
The French side contains seven players from Toulouse, and four from Top 14 champions Castres – but none from European champions and current Top 14 leaders Toulon. Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Basteraud, the last Toulon players standing in coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s squad, were cut from the training camp before the final 23 was announced.
Saint-Andre has said that to beat the All Blacks his side have to ‘play with passion and intelligence’, but insists they will be bold and that they ‘will release the handbrake’.
He’s right, of course. Though whether his side will still be able to outplay New Zealand is open to debate. France sides these days are disciplined and well drilled but lack the fabled flair of their predecessors.
That said, the back three – Yuann Huget, Brice Dulin and Maxime Medard – have the pace and ability to pose their opponents a few problems… if Parra and Tales can release them, while Wesley Forfana and Florian Fritz offer a powerful midfield pairing.
So, here’s the French plan. Get the ball to their backs regularly and quickly, while keeping it away from those big, hairy, powerful and talented New Zealanders. For 80 minutes. Easy.
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