12 Jun

First test preview – All Blacks v France
by Tracey Nelson
12 Jun 2009

Is the opening Iveco test against France threatening to be the biggest banana skin to slip on for the 2009 All Blacks? With the non-availability of Dan Carter, pre-existing injuries ruling out Richie McCaw, Ali Williams and Sitiveni Sivivatu, and a plethora of new injuries plaguing the 26-man squad, suddenly the All Blacks are looking down the barrel as they get set to face France in Dunedin this weekend.

In the first week of the squad commencing training, Richard Kahui’s shoulder injury was deemed to require surgery thus ruling him out of rugby for the next six months. With a replacement needed in the squad the NZRU invoked its discretion clause, where Luke McAlister could come directly into the All Blacks squad without having to play for the Junior All Blacks should injury rule out other players.

But it didn’t end there. Two days after the test starting lineup was named there was a training injury to Rudi Wulf, who suffered a small fracture to his shoulder that will require up to six weeks recovery and effectively puts him out of the Iveco series and the first Tri-Nations test. This has resulted in another call-up from the Juniors with Chiefs winger Lelia Masaga brought in as cover. The reshuffle now sees Cory Jane take over the right wing position with Joe Rokocoko moving over to the left wing, and Masaga taking a seat on the bench next to McAlister.

Meanwhile the French have quietly slipped into the country and based themselves in Auckland, apparently on the recommendation of Byron Kelleher who has no doubt endeared himself to his former province Otago by claiming it’s too cold and wet in Dunedin in June – although the joke is on them with Dunedin enjoying unseasonably mild weather this week while rain has persisted in Auckland. No doubt they were quite pleased to arrive to dry weather when they flew south on Thursday.

Despite claiming they are tired after a long season – funny how you never hear the All Blacks complaining as they continue to spank the Northern Hemisphere sides on their end of year tours to the UK and Europe – the French are never a side to take lightly. World Cup games aside, the French have an uncanny knack of pulling off unlikely wins and there is a certain frequency to those wins on New Zealand soil. Every 15 years or so the French manage to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, and the last time they did so was in 1994. You do the maths.

Meanwhile, back in the All Black camp Richie McCaw has been working with Adam Thomson to school him up on the finer points of openside flanker play. This becomes more crucial than ever this weekend, not only because Thomson has not been playing regularly at openside, but because of the new interpretation at the breakdown allowing the first player on his feet to get his hands on the ball to continue to play the ball regardless of whether a ruck forms thereafter. Quite how this will be refereed will be of great interest to everyone.

There is no doubt that the French will start with fury and pace, and try to upset the All Blacks by playing a very physical, confrontational style up front. And so they should, as sides that have done so in recent years have shown the All Blacks can be rattled. It will be imperative for seasoned forwards such as Woodcock, Hore and Thorn to lead the way and ensure the hard yards are put in to allow a loose trio that have only played one test (v Scotland 2008) to function as a combination.

With no less than three new caps on the bench and one in the starting lineup, this is a very inexperienced All Black side. The importance of Brad Thorn lasting as much of the 80 minutes as possible cannot be understated. The new midfield pairing of Nonu and Toeava will be tested by the hard running Matheiu Bastareaud – a fearsome brute of a young man far removed from the silky runners France has traditionally played in the 13 jersey over the years. While this will be his first test cap, half back Julien Dupuy has been great form with Leicester in the Heineken Cup this season and is a dangerous runner from the base of the scrum.

So it becomes an exciting prospect not quite knowing how an early-season test match is going to unfold. All eyes will be on the All Blacks and how they function without the likes of Carter and McCaw – remembering that it was without McCaw that the All Blacks lost two test matches last year, one of which was at Carisbrook in Dunedin. In theory the All Blacks should win. But theory can’t compete with passion.

All Blacks: Mils Muliaina(c), Cory Jane, Isaia Toeava, Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Stephen Donald, Jimmy Cowan, Liam Messam, Adam Thomson, Kieran Read, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, John Afoa, Bryn Evans, Tanerau Latimer, Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister, Lelia Masaga.

France: Maxime Medard, Cedric Heymans, Mathieu Bastareaud, Vincent Clerc, Damien Traille, Francois Trinh-Duc, Julien Dupuy, Louis Picamoles, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Romain Millo-Chluski, Pascal Pape, Sylvain Marconnet, William Servat, Fabien Barcella. Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Thomas Domingo, Sebastien Chabal, Remy Martin, Julien Puricelli, Dimitri Yachvili, Yannick Jauzion, Alexis Palisson (two to be omitted).

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