There have been suggestions from a few quarters, including Clouseau himself, that France wouldn’t try too hard against New Zealand in their pool game. Lievremont’s assertion that France could probably only hope to beat New Zealand once intimated that they would hope to pull some kind of West Germany 1954 rope-a-dope* on the best team in the world to deny them the World Cup for which they seem destined. Now playing possum is definitely a viable scenario – viz, Ireland being properly woeful until the Australia game – but the Mole does not take seriously the idea that France will not try to win the game. You’d have to think that beating New Zealand in the group stage at home would probably be a good indicator that your squad is really good, rather than that you’ve blown your beans too early.
And such, though the French team does include a few surprise calls (namely Morgan Parra at 10), their squad is so strong and/or Lievremont has been so indecisive (delete as applicable) that there are a variety of viable combinations available that could be considered a first choice XV. The Mole will say this: Having Parra at 10 allows France to operate with both himself and Yachvili on the pitch at the same time. Both are canny operators and good decision makers, not to mention great goalkickers. Parra may not have the physicality of Trinh-Duc but he is a very exciting attacking player and the rest of their backline has more than enough physicality.
With both front fives featuring perhaps only one irregular each (Whitelock in the engine room for NZ, Ducalcon at tighthead for France) you would wager that they are pretty evenly matched. Poux looks like the most destructive loosehead going at the moment and with fit-again prop-hero Fabien Barcella on the bench, it will be interesting to see if France can put any pressure on the line-out or scrum of NZ.
In two key areas, the back row and half-backs, I’m tempted to say that France have better units but NZ have the bigger stars. The aforementioned Yachvili and Parra bring so much nous to the table, but any team would rather still have Din Kahtahh in the stand off jersey. The Mole has gone the long way around to liking Piri Weepu. In fact he used to really annoy me, but now he seems to me to be far and away the first choice scrummy and needs to be given the jersey on a permanent basis for that combination to thrive. As it stands, neither team has a settled half back combination. NZ has more experience of playing together, but the combination of Parra and Yachvili has wonderful potential. The Weepu-Carter axis is all about Carter. Their decision-making will be central to any NZ success.
Meanwhile the loose forwards for France are the enviable combination of Dusautoir, Bonnaire and Picamoles which again strikes the Mole as being more solid all round that the underwhelm-fest that is Jerome Kaino and oddjob Thomson filling in at 8 ahead of Victor Vito and injured Kieran Read. Of course the man who completes that lineup is the soon to be the first New Zealand centurion and proud owner of international rugby’s only cloak of invisibility, Richie McCaw.
In terms of mentality, New Zealand are under pressure by virtue of the weight of expectation but have never lost a pool stage game and are at home. They’ve been made to watch their ignominous Cardiff quarter final in the lead in to this game to see just how horrible their change kit was… I mean, how horrible their collapse was, so they are mentally trying to clean out their kit bag. On the other hand, the French don’t fear New Zealand, even if Lievremont has been playing down their chances. However, with the “easy” side of the draw open to the losers of this tie and it being a pool tie, it’s plausible that the intensity of the game is taken down a notch, though we hope not.
The way to beat New Zealand is to stop them constantly getting over the gain line. Their backline looks phenomenal on a diet of quick ball with the opponent retreating. This quick-ball is generated by brutally hard rucking by the likes of Woodcock, Brad Carnegie Thorn and of course Sir Ruchie himself – the so-called unseen work. If France are to disrupt this pattern, it will require the kind of herculean effort put in by Dusautoir in their last World Cup meeting, where legend has it he put in 74 tackles**. Thierry will again have to lead by example, but the French pack have the physicality, should it be mustered.
One last thing on NZ’s selection: Israel Dagg has played well so far in his opportunities in this tournament, but the dropping of Mils Muliaina in order to let Sur Ruchie break a certain landmark on his own seems a tad bizarre. Super Star Sunny Bull is the outside back on the bench meaning they have four centres and one misfiring winger to cover if Dagg ships a knock.
The bookies offer a 17 point head-start for France, which seems wildly optimistic or at least somewhat founded on the idea that the French are content to not win. We don’t buy it and can’t see past France +17. France performed excellently on their last tour down under, winning in the House Of Pain (Carrisbrook, Dunedin, the place so grizzly they have to play in a greenhouse) and being narrowly pipped in Windy Wellington. Given the quality of the French kickers, the solidity of their set piece platform and the ability of their backs to score from distance, 17 points seems far too generous. While a New Zealand win is still highly probable we’re hoping for a real grueling slobber knocker where an Northern Hemisphere team sticks it up to the supposed Southern Hemisphere favourite as Ireland and Wales have already done.
We’ve already posted “L’essai du bout du Monde” – but here at Mole Towers we’re also very fond of this effort from Cedric “The Entertainer” Heymans in 2009 where he burns Mils and beats three men in a phonebox. Enjoy!
New Zealand XV: Wood cock, Mealamu, O. Franks, Thorn, Whitelock, Kaino, McCaw, Thomson, Weepu, Din Kahtahh, Kahui, Nonu, Smith, Jane, Dagg
Replacements: Hore, B. Franks, A. Williams, Boric, Ellis, Slade, Superstar Sunny Bull Wullyums
France XV: Poux, Szarzewski, Ducalcon, Pape, Nallet, Dusuatoir, Bonnaire, Picamoles, Yachvili, Parra, Medard, Mermoz, Rougerie, Clerc, Traille
Replacements: Servat, Barcella, Pierre, Harinordoquy, Trinh-Duc, Estebanez, Heymans
Referee: Allain Rolland
Venue: Eden Park, 9.30am
*Wherein a the West German team took on Hungary twice in the 1954 World Cup. In the group stage game they were pummeled by Puskas’ highly fancied Olympic Champions and generally all-conquering Magical Magyars 8-3 before breaking their hearts and concurrently sewing the seeds of a new post-war Germany by winning 3-2 in the final, thanks in part to Adi “Adidas” Dassler making extra long studs for them to play in rainy conditions, and in part thanks to a half-fit Puskas and a supposedly dodgy late offside call. I could go on.
** I can’t remember the exact number but it goes up every time I talk to someone about it.