World champions New Zealand will play the first Test of their end-of-year tour when they face off with France at the Stade de France on Saturday.
The All Blacks head into this encounter on the back of a tough fixture against the Barbarians at Twickenham last weekend. Most of the players in the All Blacks’ matchday squad did not feature against the Baa-baas with the majority of their first-choice players rested.
And after they suffered a 23-18 defeat to the Wallabies last month, experienced heads like captain Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Sonny Bill Williams, Aaron Smith and Dane Coles will be determined to right the wrongs against les Bleus.
France go into this clash with plenty of pressure on them, especially head coach Guy Novès, after they suffered a humiliating 3-0 series defeat to the Springboks in South Africa during June.
Their cause hasn’t been helped after several players suffered injuries in the build-up to this Test. Amongst them were world class players like Fijian-born wing Virimi Vakatawa and fly-half Camille Lopez who were two of their best players over the last two years.
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen expects France to still deliver a tough challenge to his charges although their opponents have lost such fine players.
“I just think that makes you just as dangerous too, particularly the French: when they have no expectations on them they tend to turn up and play well and play with excitement and enthusiasm,” he said.
“They’re the best offloading side in world rugby at the moment and unless we shut that down, we’re going to be chasing our tails for a lot of the game.”
Meanwhile, France wing Yoann Huget is not too optimistic about his side’s chances.
“We know very well where we stand,” he said.
“We’re trying to get going again after a difficult tour in South Africa.”
Huget admitted, however, that there would be “no pressure” on France this weekend.
“Everyone is saying ‘good luck’ to us. It’s never a good sign.”
Matches between France and New Zealand are usually thrilling affairs and this should also be an entertaining spectacle. In 57 Tests between these countries, the All Blacks have 44 wins, a draw and 12 losses.
The world champions have also won the last 10 fixtures between these sides and the last time they met, in Paris last year, New Zealand had to work hard for their 24-19 victory.
Players to watch:
For France: All eyes will be on Anthony Belleau, who will make his Test debut against the world champions. There will huge pressure on the 21-year-old Toulon playmaker but he has shown in several crunch matches in the Top 14 over the past two seasons that he has a good temperament and impressive skill-set and he is also an adept goalkicker. Facing the best team in the world brings different challenges to a club game, however, and he will have to hit the ground running if les Bleus want to be victorious.
For New Zealand: He was kept on the sidelines for the Barbarians clash after contracting mumps last week but Rieko Ioane has been declared fit for this encounter and if he finds himself in space, expect him to make a big impact with ball in hand. Since making his Test debut against Italy on last year’s end-of-year tour, Ioane has taken to the international arena like the proverbial duck to water and he has already scored nine tries in his 10 Test appearances. The 20-year-old is one of three finalists for World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year award and will be determined to strengthen his case for that accolade by delivering a superb performance in this Test.
Head-to-head: The battle at the base of the scrum between the two number eights will be crucial as both France’s Louis Picamoles and All Blacks skipper Kieran Read are vital cogs for their respective sides. Picamoles will be expected to give his side much needed momentum with his powerful ball carrying ability and his experience will also be crucial to the French cause. Read’s widely regarded as the best player in his position and his ability to link with his backs makes him a threat on attack. His lineout prowess is another one of his strengths, as well as his leadership skills and defensive abilities. which makes him close to the complete all-round player.
2016: New Zealand won 24-19 in Paris
2015: New Zealand won 62-13 (World Cup quarter-final) in Cardiff
2013: New Zealand won 26-19 in Paris
2013: New Zealand won 24-9 in New Plymouth
2013: New Zealand won 30-0 in Christchurch
2013: New Zealand won 23-13 in Auckland
2011: New Zealand won 8-7 (World Cup final) in Auckland
2011: New Zealand won 37-17 (World Cup pool) in Auckland
2009: New Zealand won 39-12 in Marseille
2009: New Zealand won 14-10 in wellinfgton
2009: France won 27-22 in Dunedin
Prediction: France should put up another brave fight in their own backyard but New Zealand have too much class and will take this one. All Blacks to win by 10 points.
France: 15 Nans Ducuing, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Mathieu Bastareaud, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Anthony Belleau, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Judicael Cancoriet, 5 Paul Gabrillagues, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16 Clement Maynadier, 17 Raphael Chaume, 18 Daniel Kotze, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Anthony Jelonch, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Damian Penaud
New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown
Date: Saturday, November 11
Venue: Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Kick-off: 20:45 local (19:45 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England), Tom Foley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)