France sense New Zealand weakness in match for the ages

All Blacks look to bounce back in Paris but resurgent Les Bleus keen to pounce on any fatigue

France v New Zealand, Stade de France, Saturday, 8pm Irish time – Live on Amazon Prime

To be in South Africa last summer, covering the British & Irish Lions tour and witnessing Rassie Erasmus's surgical dismantling of Nic Berry, was to be conflicted. On one hand it was disturbing, a line crossed and the human toll it has taken on Berry has been laid bare this week. On the other, Erasmus's behaviour between the first and second Tests brought some colour to a series that was in need of some illumination. Forgetting the consequences for a moment, it was quite simply entertainment. And in no small part because the rugby did not live up to the same billing.

Indeed, there cannot be another sport which engages in a “duty to entertain” debate quite as often as rugby union. It is often said that one of the beauties of the sport is that there are many styles with which to be effective, that to denigrate South Africa’s likely approach at Twickenham this weekend as somehow inferior is to misunderstand the sport. While that point is not without merit – and it must be said the three Lions Tests were incredibly tense if turgid – there are times when the stars align.

And in Paris on Saturday, there is every chance of something stellar. Put simply, New Zealand’s first trip to the Stade de France since 2017 – most likely their last before the 2023 World Cup opener and quite possibly their penultimate encounter before the final – has the potential to be everything the Lions series in South Africa was not.

It is a quirk of the rugby calendar that clashes such as these do not come around very often – and World Rugby is seeking to change that with its plans for a Nations Championship – but sometimes the allure is in the rarity. Although it can be easy to overhype what is on paper a mouthwatering match-up, those currently turned off international rugby by England’s workmanlike performances would do well to tune in to events in Paris.


For while France have not beaten New Zealand since 2009, losing all 14 of the subsequent meetings, there is a sense that the All Blacks’ aura is beginning to fade. Whereas once they could be accused of peaking in the middle of World Cup cycles the hope of New Zealand supporters must be that the opposite is now taking place.

They have lost only twice this year and were again crowned winners of the Rugby Championship but, taking nothing away from Ireland, last weekend's defeat in Dublin was chastening. As the assistant coach John Plumtree pointed out this week, France can sense their opportunity. "We know they've been waiting for us, like every team we play in this part of the world. We know what that challenge looks like. We know also it's the last game of a very long tour, and then we get to go home."

Playing against New Zealand the week after they have been beaten is never easy, but there is a sense fatigue is creeping in and they will take to the field without Beauden Barrett among their number. That does give Richie Mo'unga the chance to start at outhalf and reprise a halfback partnership with Aaron Smith, who has belatedly joined the squad. How those two fare against Romain Ntamack, restored to the No 10 jersey, and Antoine Dupont will go a large way to determining the outcome.

Smith has talked glowingly of Dupont of late – an acknowledgment that while the New Zealander has been the world’s leading scrumhalf for a sustained period the 25-year-old French man is assuming the mantle. Indeed, Dupont is the poster boy of this youthful France side, who are capturing hearts and minds. It has been a long time coming but the investment in academy-trained players, improved relations between the union and the Top 14 clubs and with the 2023 World Cup providing an obvious pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, France are resurgent under Fabien Galthié.

They have still not quite rid themselves of their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, however, as demonstrated against Scotland in this year's Six Nations and Australia over the summer, and even if the All Blacks are wobbling at the end of their season they still have an unprecedented ability to flick the switch, as shown against Wales recently.

Put it all together and there are all the ingredients for both a match for the ages and a delicious hors d’oeuvre for the 2023 World Cup. After the week it has had, rugby union and the powers that be will certainly be hoping so. – Guardian

FRANCE: Melvyn Jaminet, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Gabin Villiere, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (capt); Cyril Baille, Peato Mauvaka, Uini Atonio, Cameron Woki, Paul Willemse, Francois Cros, Anthony Jelonch, Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: Gaetan Barlot, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Demba Bamba, Romain Taofifenua, Thibaud Flament, Dylan Cretin, Maxime Lucu, Matthieu Jalibert.

NEW ZEALAND: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala, Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock (capt), Akira Ioane, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea.

Replacements: Samisoni Taukei'aho, George Bower, Ofa Tuungafasi, Tupou Vaa'i, Shannon Frizell, Brad Weber, Damian McKenzie, David Havili.