France v New Zealand preview: Les Bleus to edge All Blacks in blockbuster Rugby World Cup opener

Jared Wright
France captain Antoine Dupont and All Blacks captain Sam Cane - Rugby World Cup opener

France captain Antoine Dupont and All Blacks captain Sam Cane.

And so the Rugby World Cup finally begins. After just under four years of waiting, we start the process of finding out who will succeed the impressive 2019 South Africa side and lift the Webb Ellis Cup in 2023.

Quite frankly, this tournament could not start with a more exciting fixture as hosts France take on the mighty All Blacks, who have claimed this title a joint-record three times.

There is so much expectation on Les Bleus, who since their dreadful quarter-final exit in Japan, have been reborn under the guidance of Fabien Galthie. The head coach has helped revitalise French rugby, with both results and performances hugely impressive over the past few seasons.

They won their first Grand Slam in 12 years when they defeated England 25-13 in 2022 and have defeated every tier one nation in that time. That includes Friday’s opponents, New Zealand, who were quite simply blown away the last time these teams met in Paris in 2021.

The Frenchmen, led by the imperious Antoine Dupont, look well set for a tilt at the title as they seek to become just the second northern hemisphere outfit to win the World Cup.

Galthie’s men have the whole country behind them, but that can also bring an extra layer of pressure. Will they rise to the occasion or will they falter and enable New Zealand to be party poopers on Friday?

Ian Foster’s charges are very much among the leading contenders, but there are still a few doubts over their capabilities, especially following their record loss to the Springboks in their final warm-up match.

It has been a turbulent few years under Foster, with the 58-year-old almost losing his job in 2022 after three losses in four games to start the campaign.

He managed to stave off the sack, and his team went from strength to strength, going unbeaten until the end of the year and then starting 2023 in fine fashion.

New Zealand once again claimed the Rugby Championship title, putting in a statement display against South Africa in Round Two of that competition. Confidence was high going into their final match ahead of the World Cup, but they received a shock as the Boks utterly annihilated them.

While there were factors which perhaps contributed to the size of the defeat – most notably, the majority of that 23 had not played for a month – it was still a setback.

It begged the question of whether the All Blacks really are on the right track. No doubt that will, in part, be answered on Friday as the most open World Cup ever gets underway at the Stade de France.

Where the game will be won

While the form of the two sides has differed between the World Cup, there are several stylistic similarities in the way they play; notably, both thrive on quick attacking ruck speed, as most teams do. However, where they differ from the rest is their ruthless nature in the way they make the most of that quick ruck ball.

For the opener, however, both sides are without key decision-makers and ball-carrying options in their backline. Jonathan Danty’s absence is a massive blow at the breakdown and as a ball carrier who regularly takes at least defenders with him, while Jordie Barrett is absent for the All Blacks. Barrett is also a key man who draws in several defenders but is key to New Zealand’s kicking game, as Romain Ntamack is to Les Bleus’. Controlling the kicking game and the speed of the breakdown will be crucial for both teams, and the side that gets the upper hand in one or both will be well-placed to kick off their campaign with a victory.

Last time they met

What they said

France head coach Galthie insists that the World Cup opener will be a “party” when they face three-time champions New Zealand.

“They (All Blacks) do it best,” he told reporters. “We’re so happy to play this team. For us, Friday is a party, a joy, an honour, it’s marvellous.”

Les Bleus are without four key players for the contest while they have gone for a 5-3 split on the bench, rather than a 6-2.

“With our form, we thought we had to balance our power and strength in a more classical way,” the French boss added.

“We’ve worked on a lot of combinations, and we have to be able to adapt.

“During this competition, there are four group games, then potentially three knockouts. This France team will change.”

All Blacks coach Scott McLeod expects a response from the team following their record 35-7 defeat to the Springboks.

“From my knowledge of All Blacks teams, when they lose, they hurt a lot,” he said. “They don’t like losing and want to rectify it.

“That will be our motivation first and foremost, that’s what we’ve been building towards, and France just adds to that motivation in terms of being the host nation, and one of our great opponents.”

McLeod also reckons there will be extra pressure on France given that they are expected to go well in their home tournament.

“I haven’t been involved in a home World Cup, but listening to Richie McCaw and Dan Carter talk about it, there’s a huge weight of expectation,” he added.

“It’s not something you can escape. Every day it’s around you – the people you see, it’s in the newspapers, on the radio, on the billboards … it’s everywhere, and it can be consuming.

“They talked about how they deal with that, but I’m not going to share that. France will have their own ways in how they deal with that, and I’m sure the last few years with the increase in their play, they will have understood how to deal with that pressure.”

Players to watch

The two respective matchday 23s are chockablock with incredibly talented players, but one man will be on the lips of every fan, pundit and commentator: Antoine Dupont. While he might not have the official title right now, the Les Bleus captain is the best player in the world and leads his country in their home World Cup. Quite simply, he is a superstar, a world-class talent, a future hall of famer and every cliche in the book. A player who can flip the match it on its head and inspire his side to victory – if he doesn’t singlehandedly do it himself.

Dupont is without his regular half-back partner Ntamack for the World Cup, but France have a more than capable replacement in the form of fly-half Matthieu Jalibert. The 24-year-old made his Test debut for France back in 2018 and looked to be the next big thing in French rugby. However, a string of injuries hampered his development, and Ntamack’s rise saw him drop down the pecking order. Now, with the starting number 10 jersey securely in his possession, expect the box-office talent to make the most of his opportunity. He, too, can rip open any defence with his incredible and wide-range skillset. Friday’s game will also mark Dupont’s 50th appearance for Les Blues and the 18th time he skippers the side; he has never lost a Test while captaining his side on home soil.

It would be remiss of us not to mention one of the brilliant forwards in France’s dynamite pack. From one to eight, Les Bleus have some of the best big boys in the game, but one that often gets overlooked is the excellent Francois Cros. A player with an engine that could power two Hummer H1s and some, Cros is consistently looking to make an impact at any ruck, maul, tackle or carry. He is the epitome of a workhorse, and while his work rate might fly under the radar for the casual fan, his tenacious work is not underappreciated by his fellow teammates.

Going toe-to-toe with Dupont this weekend is All Blacks legend Aaron Smith. The veteran number nine has been one of the best scrum-halves in the world for the better part of a decade and is now in his final year as an All Black before hanging up his Test boots. He is still one of the best half-backs in the game, with his accuracy and speed of pace nearly unmatched. Like his opposite number, Smith is the heartbeat of his side’s attack and is pivotal to their success.

Despite heading into the game off the back of a red card against the Springboks, All Blacks’ second-rower Scott Barrett has been in career-best form over the past 18 months and is comfortably one of the best locks in the game. Like his brothers, centre Jordie and full-back Beauden, Scott has a marvelous skillset with the ball in hand, but he does not neglect his core roles of clearing out rucks, carrying hard into the defence, smashing ball carriers backwards and being a safe target at the lineout. Barrett has made inroads into breaking up the most capped second-row partnership in Test rugby history – held by Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick – and will look to further cement his role on the biggest stage of them all.

The World Cup opener marks the 50th Test cap for two All Blacks, too, with tighthead prop Nepo Laulala and fly-half Richie Mo’unga both hitting the milestone. It’s a particularly testing match for Laulala, who will be tasked with shoring up the scrum following the injury to in-form Tyrel Lomax, who has been instrumental in turning the All Blacks scrum into a force to be reckoned with again. Laulala is certainly capable of replicating Lomax’s dominance but faces a real challenge in La Rochelle loosehead Reda Wardi. Parity or superiority in the set-pieces will be crucial, and if the All Blacks fail to front up as they did against South Africa, it will be a long evening.

Main head-to-head

The All Blacks lineout has been a rich source of tries this year, with nine of their 20 scores coming from the set piece; however, they have been stripped of some of their key resources to secure possession with Retallick and Shannon Frizell ruled out of the opener. This makes the battle between lineout gurus Sam Whitelock and Charles Ollivon all the more important on Friday.

Both sides value the set piece hugely and contest the opposition’s ball fiercely, and with All Blacks short on jumper oppositions on Friday, France will be keen to apply the pressure with their jumpers Cros, Cameron Woki, Thibaud Flament, Gregory Alldritt and Ollivon.

Ollivon will be leading the charge for the hosts in this area of the game, but Whitelock is an experienced operator and will be confident that his side can put their Twickenham woes, where they won just 67 per cent of their lineouts, behind them.

The lineout will undoubtedly be a crucial part of the opener, but the pair’s impact around the field cannot be understated. Both are go-to ball carriers for the side and have excellent handling skill-sets. They are usually among the top tacklers for their side, too, and are also crucial to their maul defence.

Prediction

The host nation of a Rugby World Cup gets the opportunity to decide their pool stage fixtures, and the tournament organisers served up a treat by scheduling the biggest opening match since South Africa kicked off the 1995 World Cup against Australia, if not the biggest ever.

It’s number three in the world rankings versus number four, and quite simply, there is very little separating the pair.

It’s bound to be a close encounter, and history points to a New Zealand victory, as they are the only side never to be beaten in a World Cup pool stage match. However, records are made to be broken, and we predict that France will do precisely that by beating the All Blacks by four points.

Previous results

2021: France won 40-25 in Saint-Denis
2018: New Zealand won 49-14 in Dunedin
2018: New Zealand won 26-13 in Wellington
2018: New Zealand won 52-11 in Auckland
2017: New Zealand won 38-18 in Saint-Denis
2016: New Zealand won 24-19 in Saint-Denis
2015: New Zealand won 62-13 in Cardiff
2013: New Zealand won 26-19 in Saint-Denis
2013: New Zealand won 24-9 in New Plymouth

The teams

France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Yoram Moefana, 11 Gabin Villiere, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Antoine Dupont (c), 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Francois Cros, 5 Thibaud Flament, 4 Cameron Woki, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Reda Wardi
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Paul Boudehent, 21 Maxime Lucu 22 Arthur Vincent, 23 Melvyn Jaminet

New Zealand: 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Dalton Papali’i, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Ethan de Groot
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Tupou Vaa’i, 20 Luke Jacobson, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 David Havili, 23 Leicester Fainga’nuku

Date: Friday, September 8
Venue: Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Kick-off: 21:15 local (20:15 BST, 19:15 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Karl Dickson (England), Christophe Ridley (England)
TMO: Tom Foley (England)

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