New Zealand All Blacks Rugby News

All Blacks to face ‘boys and old men’




According to the script, New Zealand should heavily beat France in the first rugby test at Eden Park on Saturday which sets in motion both teams’ final countdowns to the World Cup.

The All Blacks, rated number one in the world and flush with World Cup favoritism, are technically at full strength while France, World Cup hosts and potential finalists, have left at home most of the players who will be the core of their Cup campaign.

The French squad includes 10 new caps – 10 of the 14 who make up the 26-man touring party – and a handful of members of a dispersed Old Guard recalled to the national colours.

On any measure of strengths on paper New Zealand should prevail in the first match of the two test series but the checkered history of matches between the nations shows France is most dangerous when it is most disregarded.

France has made a greater knack of upsetting the All Blacks than any of its international opponents and plays best when it is disencumbered of favoritism or expectation.

The French famously beat the All Blacks for the first time in New Zealand on Bastille Day, 1979. And in one of the great upsets, ended New Zealand’s run in the semifinals of the 1999 World Cup.

Veteran flanker Olivier Magne gave France a 1 percent chance of beating New Zealand with a team he described as a collection of boys and old men.

“It is one of the most difficult tasks and if we have a chance to win it, maybe it would be better than ’99,” he said.

The All Blacks’ strength exists mainly on paper and is less manifest in recent form.

All but one of the starting 15 were members of the World Cup conditioning group which coach Graham Henry held back from the first seven rounds of this season’s Super 14. When those players returned at the competition’s midpoint they lacked match fitness and sharpness.

Some, notably lock Ali Williams and winger Joe Rokocoko, were unable to break into Super 14 starting lineups while others held their places on reputation rather than form.

Henry’s entire selection is based on that criterion, on reputation over form, and in that selection standpoint lies the All
Blacks’ frailty.

Among the backs, Rokocoko, fullback Leon MacDonald and center Aaron Mauger have been most obviously out of form and they, in combination with recalled midfielder Isaia Toeava, seem to create an area of collective defensive weakness.

The All Black tight five is more formidable. Props Carl Hayman and Tony Woodcock and hooker Keven Mealamu constitute one of the best front rows in world rugby and the basis of the All Blacks’ sound scrum.

The lineout is problematic. Veteran lock Chris Jack is a long way from his best form and Williams, with no matchplay, is a selection gamble. So too is the All Blacks backrow. Openside flanker and captain Richie McCaw gets by on class but his partners, blindside flanker Reuben Thorne and novice No. 8 Chris Masoe, have been moderate performers.

Henry still hopes the All Blacks will quickly recapture the form they showed in Europe last November, when they crushed France as easily as they had previously beaten the home unions.

“We have set high standards for ourselves in the tests against France,” Henry said. “We would like to find the good form we had in November as quickly as possible and then build on it. So, for us, there’s a lot at stake.”

The French have a sufficient kernel of experience, particularly among the forwards, to be competitive. Magne, prop Christian Califano and replacement hooker Raphael Ibanez have more than 250 Test caps among them and won’t be cowed by the All Blacks.

The young backs had no part in France’s heavy losses to New Zealand in November last year and, for that reason, might be less damaged than their more experienced countrymen.

France made a late change to its starting 15, dropping winger Julien Laharrague for disciplinary re

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