Preview: France v Japan

Date published: September 9 2011

World Cup dark horses France kick-off their World Cup campaign against Japan at the North Harbour Stadium on Saturday.

World Cup dark horses France kick-off their World Cup campaign against Japan at the North Harbour Stadium on Saturday.

French fans have been waiting for this week for a few years now: Finally a chance to see their coach line-up what he believes is his strongest XV.

No more experimentation, no more chopping and changing…at least that's what we hope.

On paper, les Tricolors have a fantastic team. The midfield duo of Fabrice Estebanez and Aurélien Rougerie, for example, average a whopping 101kg, but they have only player together twice!

It's hard believe that, this late in the day, a team with ambitions for the title still doesn't have settled combinations. That said, a three-month long training camp would have helped.

Fortunately there are plenty of experienced heads around. For all the changes Marc Lièvremont has made over the last four years, the same old names are back: Heymans, Rougerie, Clerc, Nallet, Mas, etc.

Indeed, at an average of 28 years and 352 days, France have the second oldest squad of the 2011 RWC (behind Ireland).

Skipper Thierry Dusautoir, the rock around which this team is built, will start for the 34th time in 39 matches under Lièvremont, an will expect his team to win big as they look to build momentum ahead of their showdown with the All Blacks.

History suggests that it's hard to see any other result than a run-away victory for the French. 29 points are the most Japan have managed in nine RWC matches against Six Nations opposition, all of which the Japanese have lost, by an average of a 35-point margin. Japan's most recent RWC match result was a 12-12 draw against Canada which halted a 13-match losing streak, the longest in World Cup history.

But coach John Kirwan's side have made massive strides in the past four years as illustrated by their Pacific Nations Cup title this year, which came thanks to victory over Tonga and Fiji.

The warm-ups have also gone well. Italy had to dig deep to overturn a half-time deficit to edge to Brave Blossoms last month and USA were beaten 20-14.

Japan's problems have always been up front and against one of the strongest packs in the world, they are bound to struggle.

We expect Japan to hold on for the first half, before the flood gates open in the second period.

Players to watch:

For France: His country's number one try scorer (amongst players still active) veteran wing Vincent Clerc needs three tries to equal France's World Cup record of eight career tries by Christophe Dominici. With les Bleus sure to crossing the whitewash with relative frequency, a hat-trick for the Toulouse flyer is within the realms of possibility as he joins long-time club team-mates Cedric Heymans and Maxime Médard in the back three.

For Japan: Wing Hirotoki Onozawa will become the eleventh Japanese player to play in at least three World Cups. Ozawa scored one try at RWC 2003 and one at RWC 2007. Fourteen players have scored tries in three different World Cups. Onozawa has a chance to join that elite group.

Head-to-head: A handful of top-tier nations have been given a hiding by France in the scrums in recent years so it will be interesting to see how the Japanese shape up when the ref calls 'engage.' Penalty tries don't do much for the viewing spectacle, so let's hope the underdogs are up to the task.

Previous results:

2003: France won 51-29 in Townsville (Australia)
1973: France won 30-18 in Bordeaux

Prediction: Japan will but up a brave fight, but will run out of steam eventually. France by 35 points

Rugby World Cup betting odds

The teams:

France: 15 Cedric Heymans, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Fabrice Estebanez, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Raphael Lakafia, 7 Imanol Harinordoquy, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Julien Pierre, 4 Lionel Nallet, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Fabien Barcella.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Jean-Baptiste Poux, 18 Julien Bonnaire, 19 Pascal Papé, 20 Morgan Parra, 21 David Skrela, 22 David Marty

Japan: 15 Shaun Webb, 14 Kosuke Endo, 13 Koji Taira, 12 Ryan Nicholas, 11 Hirotoki Onozawa, 10 James Arlidge, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Ryukoliniasi Holani, 7 Michael Leitch, 6 Takashi Kikutani (c), 5 Toshizumi Kitagawa, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Kensuke Hatakeyama, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Hisateru Hirashima.
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Aoki, 17 Nozomu Fujita, 18 Hitoshi Ono, 19 Itaru Taniguchi, 20 Atsushi Hiwasa, 21 Murray Williams, 22 Alisi Tupuailai.

Date: Saturday, September 10,
Venue: North Harbour Stadium, Albany
Kick-off: 18:00 (06:00 GMT)
Weather: Dry, partly cloudy. Daytime high of 16°C.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland)), Stuart Terheege (England)
TMO: Giulio De Santis (Italy)