AUCKLAND, NZ, AND CASTRES, FRANCE – One Rugby World Cup quarter-final* really caught our attention at Rugby Wrap Up Towers – New Zealand v France. So, we cuffed our Super Rugby expert Jamie Wall and our Top 14 writer James Harrington to their computers and let them fight it out over the interweb. Here’s what they have to say about this weekend’s big match at the Millennium Stadium.
* Other Rugby World Cup quarter-finals are available
It’s All Blacks All The Way
By Jamie Wall
Wait… I’ve seen this one before! At least that’s what everyone is saying about the All Blacks’ quarter-final clash with France in Cardiff, although Wayne Barnes won’t be around this time to be the fall guy if everything goes pear shaped again. However, if anyone is presuming the 20-18 defeat in the 2007 World Cup is playing on the All Blacks’ minds, the truth is they’re probably more worried about the last couple of weeks.
After a solid 26-16 win over Argentina in their first pool game (actually it was a lot more comfortable than the scoreline suggests), the momentum hasn’t exactly been with the defending world champions.
Well, not in the first 40 minutes of each match, anyway. Handling errors, a couple of scrum wobbles and a tournament-ending injury to 119 Test veteran Tony Woodcock have been the main storylines so far, however there have been a few bright points for the notoriously hard-to-please All Black fandom.
Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams have both looked very good in their respective outings in the number 12 jersey and the defense has been nigh-on impenetrable. Out of the three tries conceded, ironically only Namibia’s was off any sustained sort of pressure. Likewise the all-important lineout has hummed along nicely and the drives off it have been effective. However, the biggest star so far has been winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, whose stepping ability has made everyone lean a little bit closer to the TV whenever he gets the ball.
However, the loose forwards need to step up. Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read have been pretty lacklustre given their illustrious reputations so far and will need to make more effort to get themselves involved. Joe Moody has been rushed onto the bench to replace Woodcock, while Tawera Kerr-Barlow has usurped TJ Perenara’s halfback understudy role.
Look for the All Blacks to give the French a decent bashing up front as they look to dominate possession and strangle their opposites out of the game. As long as Les Bleus can’t get their hands on the ball, they can’t add another chapter into the Bumper Book of Ridiculous Feats of Unexpected French Rugby Brilliance.
Man to watch
This time last year Aaron Smith was undoubtedly the premier halfback in the world, but he seems to have lost a shade of his lethality lately. He is a key man in the knockout stages as the All Blacks need an accurate box kick and his ability to get a running game going against tiring forwards.
Key match up
Richie McCaw vs Thierry Dusautoir. The two inspirational captains will lock horns in yet another battle, maybe the final one before McCaw hangs up his boots (I say maybe because he hasn’t actually said he’s retiring yet).
Dusautoir would definitely be his heir apparent in the kingdom of premier opensides, so it will be fascinating to see them go at each other like they did in the last RWC final.
While they haven’t been at their best, it’s pretty hard to see the All Blacks falling to this French team. The most positive explanation of their sluggish start to pool play is that they were waiting for the real business to start. The statistics suggest it’s time for a proper All Black performance, so the French had better be on their game to avoid being swept aside. All Blacks 29 France 13.
All Blacks Squad: Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett. Bench: Keven Mealamu, Joe Moody, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams
Allez Les Bleus!
By James Harrington
Now just hang on a second. Until 48 hours before the match, I would have agreed with everything my illustrious RWU colleague from the other side of the world had to say.
Until 48 hours before this match, France had the square-root of no chance of beating New Zealand. Unless that is, and it’s beyond unlikely, France coach Philippe Saint-Andre really had masterminded a four-years-in-the-making long con that I have been only half-joking about since it was a three-years-in-the-making long con.
Even the French media have been resorting to 1999 and 2007 and All That in a bid to rouse up a little self belief ahead of this weekend’s quarter-final. It hasn’t really worked.
Now, though, all bets are off. And I had to rip up my part of this preview and start again.
It seems Philippe Saint-Andre is no more. He has ceased to be. In rugby coaching terms, he is an ex-Philippe Saint-Andre. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. His rugby coaching processes are now history. He’s shuffled off his Marcoussis coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.
At least, that’s the story from the usually reliable L’Obs Sport, which claims that the players have decided the boss is no longer fit to lead them and have staged, for the second time in as many World Cups, a ‘discreet rebellion’. There have been suggestions that senior squad members took over team selection for Saturday’s quarter-final – which explains Morgan Parra’s place in the starting XV, given he’s been pretty much a peripheral figure during the latter part of the Saint-Andre years.
PSA had called for an ‘uprising’ from his players – but this is probably not what he had in mind… Though it is almost certainly what the editor of L’Equipe intended when he splashed with this following last weekend’s 24-9 loss to Ireland (no translation is necessary).
French revolution? Revolucion francesa? @lequipe lance "l'appel à la révolte" des #Bleus pour quart #RWC2015 #FRANZL pic.twitter.com/WJHSq5M9Bb
— Rugby 2015 en tweets (@TweetsRugby2015) October 13, 2015
Not that there was much left of the Saint-Andre error era, anyway. He heads into the sunset after this World Cup, regardless of what happens next.
But it’s not hard to imagine this latest news from the French camp adding a dischordant note of Le Fear in the New Zealand camp. They’d planned for a battle royal up front – and, boy, will they get that – but levels of fabled French unpredictability behind the scrum just became even more unpredictable. If they don’t know what they’re going to do, how can their opponents? You can forget 1999 and 2007. This match has suddenly become both of those rolled into one, with a dash of 2011 for good measure.
Man to watch
Freddie Michalak. The French rugby player with the middle name ‘Mercurial’ needs to be at his ‘how the hell did he do that?’ best. And with Parra at nine, no matter how he got there, France have two generals on the pitch. Working together, they could ask more than a few difficult questions of the New Zealand defence.
Alexandre Dumoulin vs Conrad Smith. We know all about the latter, but the former is something of a mystery. Dumoulin was a shock inclusion in Saint-Andre’s 31-man World Cup squad. He has spent much of the tournament on bench-warming duty, watching blunt instrument Mathieu Bastareaud doing demolition work in midfield. Now, he has a chance to prove himself against one of the classiest in the business, the Top 14-bound Smith. Some challenge.
No one saw the Saint-Andre news coming. That means no one can predict what France will do next – and that, in turn, is a problem for the All Blacks. Everyone knows France can be dangerous. In revolt, as they were four years ago, they can bring The Terror. New Zealand should just about have enough to win as they did in the final last time, but this game just got real. New Zealand 20 – France 17
France: Scott Spedding, Noa Nakaitaci, Alexandre Dumoulin, Wesley Fofana, Brice Dulin, Frederic Michalak, Morgan Parra, Louis Picamoles, Bernard Le Roux, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Yoann Maestri, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Pape, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado, Eddy Ben Arous. Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Vincent Debaty, Nicolas Mas, Damien Chouly, Yannick Nyanga, Rory Kockott, Remi Tales, Mathieu Bastareaud
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