James Mortimer 09.Nov.2013Getty Images
The French tale of an unstable axis
Philippe Saint-Andre has done his best to field stable playmakers, but this weekend will be his ninth 9/10 combination, with his comments that too many foreign halves in the Top 14 is hurting the national game coming back to haunt at the selection table.
Yet this duo could be his strongest ever, with Morgan Parra, la petit general, returning to action after another strong beginning to his Clermont season, although he hasn’t quite struck the heights of 2009, where he played key roles in France’s victory in New Zealand and Les Bleus Grand Slam that year.
Rémi Talès is no stranger to the All Blacks, having started at first five-eighth during the Steinlager Series, but the French championship winner is known for bringing a robust game that wasn’t on display in June. With over 200 matches of experience in the Top 14, the Castres number ten will relish another chance at the world’s best.
Experience the experience
The most experienced rugby team in history will take the field this weekend, in the form of an All Blacks side boasting half a century more caps than any other New Zealand Test team before them. Less than 27-years of age by average – another record, the squad jumps top of a list where All Blacks, Springboks, English and Irish teams that have held the most caps have averaged anywhere from 28 to 32 years.
Richie McCaw’s glittering career sees the flanker play his 122nd Test, and he and coach Steve Hansen clearly believe that such experience, boosted by players being in form (rather than aging baggage as critics might say) will allow the team to travel to England knowing it would be the penultimate hurdle for a perfect calendar - but first, as Hansen has warned, the side must turn full attention to France.
To go unbeaten would be an achievement that many of the most experienced players in All Blacks history - the most capped loosehead, hooker, openside, first and second five-eighth in history have named to start for their country in Paris - would deserve and clearly the selectors believe the older heads are the ones to guide the younger players through Europe.
No need for nerves Dan the man
We’ve talked about it plenty and it warrants mention again, Daniel Carter has more pressure on him than ever before, but his predicament only benefits the national team, with Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett ensuring the future is in good hands. This is achieved while allowing such competition to hopefully bring out the best in the 98-Test veteran.
Carter has a glittering record and looks polished as ever on the training field, but his ‘nerves and frustration’ only come from the fact that he knows the bucks underneath him have had time in the saddle, while the man who re-wrote the handbook on New Zealand first five-eighth play has watched on.
Glimpses are supported by match statistics, and his all-round game can still put to shame the fleet footed first fives chasing his heels. This is the sort of stage where ice begins to flow through the veins of the Southbridge local, and with an extended break looming this is the time, for Dan the man.
Time for the scrum to rumble
Los Pumas frontal assault troubled all comers, the Springboks power pack was operating at typical efficiency, while a larger than expected Japanese scrum ended up pushing an All Blacks pack backwards at times – even if the World Champions fielded a changed eight.
For all of the pyrotechnics out wide, and the glorious tales of wildly burgeoning depth, the All Blacks scrum looks to now been an area where rivals are thinking they might have an edge, even if this is a backhanded compliment that other areas of New Zealand’s game aren’t fair game.
One thing is for certain, the All Blacks scrum, like any in the world, depowers dramatically without incumbents, and the likes of Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu will be want to remind a few people of their grit, while the ballast of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick is restored. New scrum laws mean power is a factor, almost more than technique, and the men in black look to still be evolving in this area.
The All Blacks would prefer French engagement
France have the ability to grind down the contest to a fierce slugfest that they would be equipped to win, but the All Blacks expertise to play comfortably in such parameters often forces sides to drift towards risk and ambition – that is, they try to play a running gun fight against a black clad outfit that rarely loses such battles.
Certainly Les Bleus have used their flair to devastating effect throughout history to record some famous wins against the All Blacks, but they have also lost by some blowout margins when such an approach allows New Zealand to play that special game we all know too well.
In New Plymouth, where the two great rivals last clashed, it was 3-3 after 31 minutes, 8-6 at halftime to the All Blacks, 11-9 with quarter of an hour to play, before none other than Carter made the difference with four penalties added with a try to an understudy in Beauden Barrett.
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