New Zealand will celebrate their 500th Test match in Christchurch on Saturday with hopes of a sixth consecutive win against France.
New Zealand will celebrate their 500th Test match at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday with hopes of a sixth consecutive win against France.
This weekend's game will only be the second time the All Blacks have played at the Addington venue having hosted Ireland there last year. Indeed it's almost a year to the day that New Zealand were forced to dig very deep to scrape past the Irish tourists 22-19.
That result sparked talks of a possible historic win for the Irish in the third Test a week later, only for the men in green to be obliterated 60-0.
Following last week's close run thing at Eden Park, France have travelled south harbouring similar aspirations to their Six Nations counterparts and, with all due respect to the Irish, the French ambitions are a touch more credible.
A Test series is a bit like a three-round boxing match as the opponents size each other up, react and counteract. We can draw five conclusions from the opening salvo in Auckland:
1 – France's horrendous Six Nations campaign is not a reflection of their true strength. Les Bleus still have a deep pool of talent to draw from and the All Blacks are often the team to draw the best out of them.
2- New Zealand have a significant margin for improvement after a rusty start to their international season.
3 – New Zealand v France remains one of the best fixtures to watch at any level of the game. Their styles complement each other and when it's on, oh boy, is it ON. (The All Blacks are the highest try scorers in Test history with a total of 1706. France are second, having scored a total of 1,623 tries in 693 matches).
4 – France have massive issues at scrum time, a rare situation in a long and proud history in the set-piece.
5 – The All Blacks miss Richie McCaw more than they're willing to admit.
As you would expect, Steve Hanson and Philippe Saint-AndrÃ© have moved to remedy their respective issues as far as possible. While the All Blacks have named an unchanged starting XV and will have used an extra week to gel, France welcome back a couple of familiar faces: Nicolas Mas is ready to roll having made his comeback from a long injury lay-off against the Blues on Tuesday and Fred Michalak is back to add an extra dose of the unexpected to the French mix.
That midweek game has had good and bad consequences for France as it revealed that Maxime MÃ©dard is back to his dangerous best with 15 on his back but it also forces flank Yannick Nyanga to take a place on the bench having played most of first Test due to Fulgence Ouedraogo's injury before captaining the 'dirt trackers' in Albany.
That means South African-born blindside Bernard le Roux will make his Test debut this weekend which will be interesting to watch considering just how well the French back-row performed last week.
For all their positive efforts at the breakdown, where they generally had the upper hand, the French lost the game at scrum time where they were thrashed, an anomaly that has been the central topic of discussion in French columns all week. It's very apparent that Daniel Kotze is not up to scratch at Test level and it's a sad situation if Luc Ducalcon is the only other option when Mas retires.
Mas and Michalak's return also means France field a more experienced starting XV with a total of 444 caps compared to New Zealand's total of 391. France also field an older starting XV with an average age of 28 compared to New Zealand's 26.
France captain Thierry Dusautoir will overtake Jean-Pierre Rives' record of 59 Test starts in the back-row this weekend while All Blacks skipper Kieran Read wins his 50th Test cap on Saturday. Both sides have potential debutants on their benches in Jeremy Thrush and Remi Tales.
All the ingredients are there for another cracking game: France have got a scent of rare win on Kiwi soil while the All Blacks will want to set the record straight. There's a great mix of old heads and fresh faces and the visitors have shown the are willing to take New Zealand on at their own game. Expect lots of attacking from deep to keep us entertained.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand: Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith will combine in the midfield for the 45th time on Saturday, overtaking the tally achieved by the English pairing Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott. Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy of Ireland hold the record, having played a total of 50 Tests as a centre partnership. With Rene Ranger in amazing form and suggestions that a Cruden-Carter 10-12 combo might be the way forward, both midfielders will be keen to show everyone why they have been consistently considered the benchmark for a centre duo for the last four years.
For France: Love him or hate him, Fred Michalak is always sure to leave his mark on a match. PSA obviously has massive confidence in the Toulon scrum-half as he changes his half-back duo yet again. Even Michalak said he was surprised to get picked but he'll know better than most that it usually takes something special to beat the All Blacks. Florian Fritz had a great game last week but with Mathieu Bastareaud back in contention after his late arrival, another top-class performance will be required to keep the blue 13 jersey.
Head-to-head: Just in case you didn't get the point being made above, the return of Nicolas Mas couldn't have come at a better time and he will want to show Wyatt Crockett why he is considered one of the best scrummagers in the game. There is very little between the packs in terms of size. New Zealand will have a 3kg per man weight advantage up front, weighing in at an average 111kg per man.
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
2007: New Zealand won 61-10 in Wellington
2007: New Zealand won 42-11 in Auckland
2006: New Zealand won 23-11 in Paris
2006: New Zealand won 47-3 in Lyon
2004: New Zealand won 45-6 in Paris
2003: New Zealand won 40-13 in Sydney
2003: New Zealand won 31-23 in Christchurch
2002: France and New Zealand drew 20-20 in Paris
Prediction: Les Bleus pushed their hosts close last week but we'll do well to remember the All Blacks haven't lost at home – to anyone – in almost four years. That's not a record to be scoffed at. New Zealand by 10 points!
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane