Preview: France v New Zealand

Date published: November 8 2013


As soon as the draw was made everyone knew that a France v New Zealand quarter-final in Cardiff just had to happen, and so it has.

Eight years after les Bleus stunned the world with a 20-18 upset at the Millennium Stadium, the two teams will meet again at the venue, although World Rugby denied us the added cherry of Wayne Barnes refereeing the game.

In 2007, the greatest country never to have won a World Cup beat probably the single best team not to win it, as France slammed shut the door on Richie McCaw and co, two years after they had dismantled the Lions, and as the red hot favourites for the title.

Eight years before that, France had produced the greatest comeback in the tournament's history – with all due respect to Romania's win over Canada last week – when they got Twickenham singing La Marseillaise in a 43-31 win.

On that occasion it was all about French flair, with Christophe Lamaison pulling the strings, and a combination of gritty forwards and thrilling backs proved too much for an All Black side that appeared too reliant on Jonah Lomu, despite a great deal of other threats in the side.

Even in 2011, New Zealand only escaped by the narrowest of margins with an 8-7 success at Eden Park, their impenetrable fortress almost breached, only for injuries to both French goal-kickers, as well as some lenient refereering, denying les Bleus.

So are we in for another dramatic game in the fixture that has produced more than any other in World Cup history?

To be honest, it's hard to envisage.

In four years in charge, Philippe Saint-André's team have probably managed two top class performances against good opposition – a pair of wins in Paris over Australia.

Now they take on a New Zealand side, that while not at its very best, has cruised through the pool stages.

The chances of the All Blacks looking ahead to a semi-final against South Africa or Wales seem remote. If there is one thing they have surely learned by now, it's to not take the French lightly at World Cups. Add in the talk of revolt in the French camp, and the All Blacks have been warned.

So France's hopes appear to rely on trying to bludgeon their way to victory up front. Even without Mathieu Bastareaud, replaced by Alexandre Dumoulin, it's hard to see the French backs playing with enough cohesion to cause New Zealand problems.

In fact Saint-André and backs coach Patrice Lagisquet's time in charge has been marked by a reliance on individuals to win one on one battles in order to create tries. Wesley Fofana and Noa Nakaitaci are capable of doing so, and Frédéric Michalak is looking elusive, but if France are to stand a chance, it will be through the big carrying of the likes of Louis Picamoles, Yoann Maestri and Guilhem Guirado.

More realistically, this will be the game where it finally clicks for the All Blacks as they stop trying things and just produce their best rugby.

The old saying used to be that France could beat anyone on their day; sadly that no longer seems to be the case, and if New Zealand are firing the PSA era will probably end with a whimper.

Players to watch: 

For France: The last time France beat New Zealand, the All Blacks were without a number of key players. Having said that, the one person they just couldn't deal with was Louis Picamoles. The powerful number eight constantly brushed off tackles and the likes of Jerome Kaino will have to be on him in a flash when he gets his hands on the ball. France don't have much chance in this game, but if they are to spring a surprise, they need Picamoles with ball in hand, rather than making 20 tackles as he did against Ireland last week.

Philippe Saint-André knew he needed to make changes after the Ireland loss, so a lot of pressure is on Morgan Parra and Alexandre Dumoulin, in particular, to perform. Parra is France's most experienced scrum-half, and probably the right call for this game, but he'll need his back row to perform to allow him some quick ball. Dumoulin, meanwhile, comes in for the biggest game of his life, having only just recovered in time for the tournament. He's not been hugely impressive so far, but Mathieu Bastareaud's defensive struggles were too big a risk for Saint-André, and Dumoulin and Wesley Fofana worked well in midfield in November.

For New Zealand: There aren't many weaknesses in the New Zealand team, but loosehead prop is not really a position of strength. Tony Woodcock's injury gives Wyatt Crockett a shot at starting, and he'll have his hands full with Rabah Slimani. The Frenchman might not have got his just reward after getting the better of Cian Healy, but he'll need to get on top of Crockett early.

In the backline Steve Hansen has plumped for Nehe Milner-Skudder on the wing ahead of Waisake Naholo, and he could cause France plenty of problems. Les Bleus show less inclination than most teams to study their opposition, so expect them to fall for a couple of trademark steps from Milner-Skudder, especially in the second half.

Head-to-head: This is probably the last time we'll see one of these captains on the world stage and few have done more at World Cups. The battles between Richie McCaw and Thierry Dusautoir in both 2007 and 2011 are up their with the best the tournament has seen, and it's fitting that they will face off one final time. Eight years ago in Cardiff, Dusautoir managed 38 tackles in as good a defence display as anyone has produced. He also managed a try that day, as he did at Eden Park in the final last time out. Score another and he'll be the first person ever to score three tries in World Cups against New Zealand. McCaw is fit again after missing the Tonga game with a hip problem, and like Dusautoir, has adapted to a slowing body by playing even more intelligently. The battle between the two old warriors will be worth the attendance fee, even if New Zealand do run away with it.

Team news: France have made three changes from the team that went down to Ireland, with starts for Morgan Parra, Alexandre Dumoulin and Bernard le Roux. Parra replaces Sébastien Tillous-Borde at scrum-half, with the Toulon player dropping out of the squad altogether because of his lack of kicking. That means a bench spot for Rory Kockott, who is joined by Yannick Nyanga and Dimitri Szarzewski, both of whom missed the Ireland game. Dumoulin comes in for Mathieu Bastareaud, dropped after struggling to contain Robbie Henshaw, while the ineffective Damien Chouly makes way for le Roux.

New Zealand have made four changes from the team that cruised past Tonga on Friday. Richie McCaw is back to captain the team, coming in for Sam Cane, while Wyatt Crockett replaces the injured Tony Woodcock. Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea are the preferred choice on the wings, as Waisake Naholo misses out and as expected Brodie Retallick returns in the second row for Luke Romano, who doesn't even make the bench. Both teams have gone for no lock cover among their replacements in order to fit in an extra back rower, so the game should open up in the second half.

Previous results:

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 in Auckland
2011: New Zealand won 37-17 in Auckland
2009: New Zealand won 39-12 in Marseille
2009: New Zealand won 14-10 in Wellington
2009: France won 27-22 in Dunedin
2007: France won 20-18 in Cardiff

Prediction: History might tell us never to write off the French, but this team under Saint-André has shown little to convince us they can really trouble New Zealand. Pride alone may see them keep it tight in the first half, but expect New Zealand to pull away for a comfortable win in the end. New Zealand by 15!

The teams:

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Alexandre Dumoulin, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Brice Dulin, 10 Frédéric Michalak, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Nicolas Mas, 19 Damien Chouly, 20 Yannick Nyanga, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud

New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.

Date: Saturday, October 17
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 20:00 local 
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), John Lacey (Ireland)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)

By Paul Eddison