Date: Saturday 24th September
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Alain Rolland
After comfortable victories over Tonga and Japan in the first two rounds of Group A, the All Blacks face their toughest test so far against a French team who shattered their dreams in Cardiff back in 2007. Facing France in the group stages gives the All Blacks the kind of hard test that they missed out on four years earlier, and so far they have looked like favourites running in plenty of tries.
Crazy selections, inconsistent performances, and nearly allowing both Canada and Japan to give them a scare means that so far it’s been a rather standard World Cup campaign for France. Injuries mean that they have lost star players such as Fabian Barcella, William Servat and David Skrela who have all missed selection, which is partly the reason why the French team has a slight experimental feel to it ahead of this weekend’s clash with the All Blacks.
What to Expect:
France’s gamble of fielding Morgan Parra at number 10 has left the New Zealand press fuming. What it gives France however is another good kicking option, and with an armoury consisting of Dimitri Yachvili, Parra and Damien Traille, they have an excellent kicking game. This is crucial so that firstly they are able to get into good field positions to trouble the All Blacks, as well as clearing their lines in defence.
Meanwhile for New Zealand, the powerful running game of the back row (Kaino, McCaw and Thomson) along with Ma’a Nonu in the centre is key to their success. Their set piece has been relatively untested so far in this tournament, but if they can keep Lionel Nallet and Pascal Pape quiet at lineout time, then front foot ball should give them a great advantage.
All Eyes On: Richie McCaw & Morgan Parra
The All Blacks will want to celebrate captain Richie McCaw’s 100th cap with a convincing win over the French in Auckland. McCaw’s qualities should be familiar to any rugby fan; his work at the breakdown, big defence and deceptive pace when running with the ball setting him above the rest. No one seemed to hurt more than McCaw four years ago in Cardiff, and he will be desperate for revenge.
Meanwhile the fuss over Parra’s selection at fly-half means that his qualities have been overlooked. There is no doubt in my mind that he can play well at 10, he has the vision, skills and control to make it work. It is one hell of a baptism of fire though in one of the most demanding positions on a rugby field.
Head to Head: Ma’a Nonu & Maxime Mermoz
Nonu has been in excellent form for New Zealand so far in this tournament. No longer is he simply a battering ram at 12, his handling has improved remarkably over the last few seasons. Add that to his combination with Conrad “Snake” Smith in the centres, and the All Blacks have a clear advantage. As for Mermoz, his participation in this tournament was seriously put in doubt following a nasty injury in the Six Nations that left him with a long layoff and a race against time to be fit. As a player, he is one of the best in France, possessing superb handling and vision for the space, plus a handy boot. His defence isn’t bad either, which is lucky as he’s facing Nonu.
Weather: 18 degrees, cloudy
France’s experimentation at 10 is bold but may backfire, as is the decision to leave Imanol Harinodoquy on the bench. New Zealand should be confident, but you’d never write off the French to cause an upset. The Eden Park crowd though will be baying for blood. New Zealand by 9.
by Ben Coles