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Preview: Australia v France

12th June 2014 23:54

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Young skipper: Michael Hooper

Are France capable of turning the bus around after last week's hiding? Fielding an almost entirely new team means it's not beyond the realms of possibility.

It should come as no surprise that Philippe Saint-André has made a whopping ten changes to his starting XV. French coaches of recent times have made tinkering with their team a nasty habit but, for once, overhauling the side was the right move.

There were always going to be a handful of changes as the players involved in the Top 14 Final were incorporated, but the abject failure of last week's Bleus to bring any sort of intensity to the game, especially in defence, demanded that PSA swing his axe in all directions.

Will it change the expected outcome in Melbourne? I have my doubts, and I'm not alone.

Most French fans have run out of patience with the current staff, who seem wholly incapable of convincing anyway they have a winning strategy for their team or a coherent selection policy. Most significantly they do not seem able to bring the best out of their players.

Rugby is a game were attitude is all-important. Without wanting to fall into the trap of old clichés, it's something that's especially true of the French, who are able to swing from brilliant to mediocre and back again based purely on the mood in their camp.

The return of talisman Thierry Dusautoir is sure to boost the belief in the squad after their embarrassing performance in Brisbane. But one can't help feel that PSA simply does not inspire his troops to 'put their bodies on the line for their country', to borrow a favourite line of another international coach whose team is on a very different trajectory.

With just five wins - four of which have come against Scotland (twice), Italy and Tonga - from 17 games since the start of 2013, it seems unlikely that this generation will find their mojo before we see a change in coaching staff, which won't happen until after the World Cup.

By contrast, things are on an upward curve for Australia. The Wallabies have the opportunity to make it six wins in a row for the first time since 2005, which would represent a major milestone for the Ewen McKenzie era.

Their seven unanswered tries in the first 70 minutes at Suncorp Stadium were all from the top drawer. The Wallaby coaches would have been delighted by the support play, off-loading, exploitation of space and the domination of the contact area.

While the tries were mostly scored in the outside channels, much of the good work was done inside with Bernard Foley and Nic White's new combination off to a good start and Matt Toomua the kingpin of the attack. And it all came thanks to a pack that was consistently going forward.

But don't expect the French to roll over they way they did last week.

"It's a slap when you take 50 points," said returning centre Mathieu Bastareaud.

"On the pitch you feel helpless and you're doubly helpless in the stands ... We want to play, avenge the insult."

Will we see another famous French revival?

"France is one of the few one teams in the world who can make a lot of changes and still turn things around quickly in one week," said McKenzie midweek.

"They never stay down for long and will be using the disappointment of the opening Test to motivate them for the second game."

No doubt France will have a point to prove, and if there is one thing we've all learnt it's that you should never write the French off. But if things don't go the visitors' way early on, do these Bleus have the passion to fight to the end? I fear another crushing defeat could kill off this team's self belief for good.

Players to watch:

For Australia: After Stephen Moore's game lasted only a few minutes in Brisbane before the curse of the Wallaby captaincy struck again, indefatigable flanker Michael Hooper will become Australia's youngest captain in 67 years at the tender age of 22. A believer in the adage "old enough if good enough", McKenzie insists age isn't an issue for the team when it comes to leadership. "He is a lead-by-example kind of guy, and is highly respected in the playing group," said the coach. Hooper was outstanding last week, continuing the form that saw him win the John Eales medal last year. "That's part of it, too. You pick leaders and you want them to be able to lead, and you also want them to be able to not affect their play," commented McKenzie on how well Hooper stepped into the role in Moore's absence. But it's easy to lead a team that is dominating, we wait to see how well he copes when his team is put under pressure.

For France: Hulking centre Mathieu Bastareaud will play his first Test on Australian soil, five years after an embarrassing scandal denied him his first match Down Under. As a naive 20-year-old, he was sent home early from his first southern hemisphere tour after the infamous incident in New Zealand when he fabricated a story about a late-night attack in Wellington as a cover for the injuries sustained in a drunken fall in his hotel. French media reports suggested that he was driven to the brink of suicide in the fallout. The 115kg double European champion returns a very different man and with a very important role. Much of the French attacking will revolve around Basta smashing holes in the Aussie defence, in both midfield channels, for Wesley Fofana to exploit.

Head-to-head: What is the world coming to? Australia's history of scrum troubles seemed a thing of the past last week as two of the world's most highly-rated scrummagers - Thomas Domingo and Nicolas Mas - were given a rough ride. Indeed, France have been forced to field two new props - uncapped Alexandre Menini and Rabah Slimani - this weekend, making for an intriguing battle of the front rows. "We don't have too many props in France because they're all foreigners so we need to (test them)," said Saint-André. "If we don't try out some props in a tour 15 months from the World Cup, we'll never try them." Slimani helped France win a penalty try against Australia's replacements in the last minute in Brisbane, suggesting the balance could easily tilt in France's favour. The Australian scrum has been on the rise since last year's Rugby Championship but they still have some way to go to shake their dubious set-piece reputation. "If you have a good scrum the morale of the team picks up and everyone gets excited," said Wallaby loosehead James Slipper.

Previous results:
2014: Australia won 50-23 in Brisbane
2012: France won 33-6 in Paris
2010: Australia won 59-16 in Paris
2009: Australia won 22-6 in Sydney
2008: Australia won 18-13 in Paris
2008: Australia won 40-10 in Brisbane
2008: Australia won 34-13 in Sydney
2005: France won 26-16 in Marseille
2005: Australia won 37-31 in Brisbane
2004: France won 27-14 in Paris
2002: Australia won 31-25 in Sydney
2002: Australia won 29-17 in Melbourne
2001: France won 14-13 in Marseille

Prediction: With so many changes in the French team, it's hard to know what to expect. They couldn't be worse than last time out. But we don't reckon they'll be good enough. Australia by 12 points.

The teams:

Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Horwill, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Pek Cowan,) 18 Laurie Weeks, 19 Luke Jones, 20 Scott Higginbotham, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Kurtley Beale, 23 Pat McCabe.

France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Rémi Talès , 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 6 Yannick Nyanga, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Alexandre Menini.
Replacements: 16 Brice Mach, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Nicolas Mas, 19 Bernard le Roux, 20 Louis Picamoles, 21 Antoine Burban, 22 Frédéric Michalak, 23 Remi Lamerat.

Date: Saturday, June 21
Venue: Docklands Stadium, Melbourne
Kick-off: 20:00 local (10:00 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

By Ross Hastie

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