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Bitter memories spurring All Blacks

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NZPA     24 Nov 2009     Getty Images

They started strongly, demolished Italy in their World Cup rugby opener ... but we know how it all ended, not here but at the hands of the French in Cardiff.

Today, the memories came flooding back as the All Blacks' bus rolled through sunny Marseille, along the idyllic Vieux Port where hundreds of yachts are moored, past the hotel they stayed in 2007, and on to their new digs just up the road, near Stade Velodrome.

This time the stakes are lower, but the relative success of the All Blacks' 2009 season will be defined by the result on Sunday (NZT).

Their only previous test against France here was a defeat, 33-42 in 2000, and coach Marc Lievremont's home side are flying high after a brutal 20-13 win over the Springboks in Toulouse this month.

All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen said the memories of two years ago had the team in the right frame of mind.

"The one match we had here (in 2007) was against Italy and it was probably our best game of the whole tournament," he said.

"You can hang on to that (World Cup) or you can decide it's something we've learned from and moved on from, and we're a better group of people and team because of it."

Of more relevance is the June series in New Zealand when they were stunned 22-27 by France in Dunedin before bouncing back to win 14-10 in Wellington.

A narrow points differential saw France snatch the Dave Gallaher Trophy, and the All Blacks' season has wavered ever since without reaching lofty heights.

After yesterday's 19-6 win over England at Twickenham, the players spoke of this being the "big one" of their year, with fullback Mils Muliaina vowing they would throw everything at France to end their test season on a high note.

"France have played well, they beat South Africa and now it's our turn to front up. Marseille will be pumping and hopefully so will we," Hansen said.

While they hadn't buried an opponent yet on this tour in Cardiff, Milan and London, Hansen said the All Blacks were a much harder unit than in June.

"The French put a lot of pressure on us, their linespeed was very good and they were very physical in Dunedin.

"We had about eight or nine leaders out of that game (Richie McCaw and Dan Carter the most notable) and it was a shock to some guys coming out of Super 14 to test rugby.

"These guys have gone away and learned and are more experienced for that occasion, and we've got a lot of leaders back, too, so it will be a different kettle of fish here."

At the end of a long season the All Blacks players were in surprisingly good shape as they boarded the plane in London, Hansen said, with no injuries to report ahead of tomorrow's light training session.

Hansen said some experienced heads would return, an apparent reference to prop Neemia Tialata and winger Cory Jane, although he said Zac Guildford's form had created a selection headache.

Combative blindside flanker Jerome Kaino could also get the nod ahead of Adam Thomson in another close call.

The All Blacks looked to attack more against England, with varying success, and would probably need to score more than one try -- as they had in each of their past three tests -- to get home here.

"Our attacking game was as good as it's been for a long time, we just didn't get the reward," Hansen said.

"We haven't had the reward all tour to be honest. That will come. If we keep knocking on the door, someone's eventually going to let us in."