Preview: New Zealand v France

04th Jun 2007, 09:27

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Toeava: A super-sized Brian O'Driscoll

Toeava: A super-sized Brian O'Driscoll

Once upon the time the whole rugby world would have been salivating over a meeting between New Zealand and France in Auckland. Today, not even the main protagonists can work them themselves into anything vaguely resembling excitement.

Once upon the time the whole rugby world would have been salivating over a meeting between New Zealand and France in Auckland. Today, not even the main protagonists can work them themselves into anything vaguely resembling excitement.

"We did not want to come, but we must come," shrugged France coach Bernard Laporte as he flew south, not quite echoing the words of an expectant Caesar.

His counterpart, New Zealand boss Graham Henry, is equally downbeat about the two-Test series.

With domestic issues yet to be settled in France's Top 14 competition, Laporte was forced to travel to the land of the long white cloud without at least 30 of his top players.

In what seems to be the European vogue (see England's recent and forthcoming humiliations in South Africa), players who have propelled their clubs to play-off heights forfeit the chance to represent their country in the mid-year Tests - a seemingly bizarre rewards system that has irked Henry.

"The All Blacks team that went to Europe last November was the best All Blacks team that we could put on the track," he snapped after spying six new caps in the French XV for Saturday's encounter at Eden Park.

"We are holding up our end of the bargain, we are showing a lot of integrity, we are putting the international game first. I think people need to think about that."

Well, let's.

Is putting the international game first really the way forward? Henry obviously thinks so. He withdrew his troops from the first seven rounds of the Super 14, effectively scuppering New Zealand hopes of silverware and damaging viewer and advertising figures in the process.

Just think about that for a moment. Whilst the All Blacks of yore downed pens and shovels and shearing tools in order to pull on a rugby jersey, the current crop of professional Chosen Ones actually forgo rugby for rugby.

Does that benefit the game? Could New Zealand rugby survive on just a handful of Tests per year? Well, the number of All Blacks clutching one-way tickets to the forthcoming Rugby World Cup seems to suggest that such an approach is not economically sustainable.

But one can sympathise with Henry's position, we'd all love to see a first-choice French XV in action in New Zealand.

Yet the heart of European rugby - French rugby, in particular - resides at the local level, and the international game is forced to play second fiddle between Six Nations, Rugby World Cups and Lions tours.

The answer to the problem surely lies somewhere betwixt the Test-centric vision as espoused by Henry and the pound-of-flesh taxation of Europe's top players. Let's just hope the game's punch-drunk administrators will realise that compromise doesn't have to mean capitulation, and soon.

In the meantime, we'd best make do with what has been dished up, and if truth be told, it's not such a meagre-looking dish.

With the risk of falling into the RWC-centric trap (it's so hard not to), the importance of this game is defined by what lies ahead.

Neutral observers are relishing the prospect of seeing these two nations play out the last act of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, a game that has already been billed 'the dream final'. Favourites versus hosts, south versus north, brooding perfectionists versus Champagne Charlies - it has it all.

And so to Saturday. Can the tourists put a dent in New Zealand's well-laid plans, or will the All Blacks extinguish France's global pretensions before a single fan has set foot in Paris? The smart money is on the latter.

Despite Henry's claims that the mid-year series is all about "rebuilding the foundations", the precise man-management and re-conditioning of the All Blacks mean that they will come out of the blocks as almost the finished article.

These All Blacks aren't just hunting for the 18-inch pot that has eluded them for twenty years, they are after the tag of 'best ever' and they will not kick off their season of destiny in second gear.

Given what is expected, nay, demanded of Richie McCaw's team, seeing them train is privilege enough. On Saturday we shall see them in full Test mode, so why all the long faces?

And let us not forget, France are the only side to have ever beaten New Zealand at Eden Park in over twenty years - that fine 23-20 victory in 1994, sealed, in typically outrageous behaviour, by Philippe Saint-Andre's last-gasp 'try from the end of earth'.

The French revel in their glorious unpredictability, and they love nothing better than being the underdogs. Indeed, the weight of expectation normally stifles their natural ability.

The good news is that musketeering spirit is still alive and well. It is almost comforting that Laporte was forced to admonish the Laharrague brothers for skipping a 'video analysis session'. Who needs TacticZone© when you can sniff the opponents' tryline from behind your own posts?

Yet without the ballast supplied by the men from Stade Français, Biarritz, Clermont and Toulouse, the tourists' ship is sure to go down with all hands on deck.

Laporte will undoubtedly learn more about some of his lesser lights than Henry will garner from his tried and tested battalion, but that new knowledge is unlikely to encompass anything more than defensive aptitudes.

New Zealand have had the best side in the world for a long time; now they have the fanciest tackle-bags.

Players to watch:

For New Zealand: New Zealand have struggled to fill the void left by Tana Umaga at outside centre, but their search for a replacement is now at an end. Enter Isaia Toeava, for many the outstanding performer of the 2007 Super 14. Strong, intelligent, dextrous, athletic, dynamic, explosive - the Blues centre has it all, he's a super-sized Brian O'Driscoll. And he's just 21. Gulp.

For France: If there's one man who encapsulates the mercurial nature of French rugby it is Thomas Castaignède. The veteran playmaker has two settings - artist or ordinary. Castaignède was very ordinary in his last appearance - Gloucester's hammering of Saracens, a game he described as the lowest point of his career - and he'll need to find the magic if he wishes to exorcise those memories and inspire the neophytes around him.

Head-to-head: Chris Masoe (New Zealand) v Sébastien Chabal (France): Two players who pride themselves on their physical game; two players who have been given the chance to stake their claim. Divert your eyes - it will be violent.

Recent results:

2006: New Zealand won 23-11 at Stade de France, Paris
2006: New Zealand won 47-3 in Lyon
2004: New Zealand won 45-6 at Stade de France, Paris
2003: New Zealand won 40-13 at Stadium Australia, Sydney (RWC)
2003: New Zealand won at Jade Stadium, Christchurch
2002: Match drawn 20-20 Stade de France, Paris
2001: New Zealand won 37-12 Westpac Trust, Wellington
2000: France won 42-33 in Marseille
2000: New Zealand won at Stade de France, Paris
1999: