21 Oct

Head to Head: All Blacks vs. France
by Paul Waite
21 Oct 2011

rhinosYou often see those player-to-player comparisons in the newspapers, where they compare each player with the player wearing the same jersey number on the opposition team. These are misleading because the game isn’t a simplistic man against man competition.

This ia an attempt to do a better job by comparing the two teams in terms of each player’s contribution to their areas of play, and the value of each combination. The assessment has been made on current World Cup form as observed in pool play, quarter-finals, and semi-finals, with most importance attributed to the semis.

The areas of play are kicked off with the tight-five forwards who, together with the loose-forwards, generally determine the outcome of the game. The scoring here involves players value at the set-pieces such as scum and lineout, plus their contribution around the field in the maul, at the ruck, on defence, and on attack.

The loose-forwards are the second most critical ‘pod’ of players in a team, and the scoring here is determined by how they perform at the breakdown, carrying the ball, at set-pieces, and in general play supporting on attack, and tackling on defence.

Moving to the backs we have the play-makers, or ‘halves’ at Nos. 9 and 10 respectively. These are scored on their abilities to use the ball the forwards provide to create plays and chances to score, and on their defensive qualities.

The mid-field pair are a critical element in the team’s defence and attack out wide. These guys essentially control traffic up and down the sides of the rugby field. They must be strong defensively, with an ability to organise both halve and back-three, and they must be able to challenge the opposition midfield on attack.

Finally the back three are the fullback and two wing three-quarters. All must be good in the air, and each wing should be able to read the game well, kick well, and chase attacking kicks. The fullback has to be a great last line of defence, as well as chiming into the back-line on attack.

In all of these areas, there is a high element of combination involved, where the old adage ‘a team is greater than the sum of its parts’ holds true. The scoring here is a judgement on how the various groups of players gel to make that happen, and to produce an effect which is something more than just individualistic play.

All Blacks France
Tight-five
Tony Woodcock 10 Jean-Baptiste Poux 8
Keven Mealamu 10 William Servat 8
Owen Franks 10 Nicolas Mas 8
Brad Thorn 9 Pascal Pape 9
Sam Whitelock 8 Lionel Nallet 9
Combination 9 7
Loose forwards
Jerome Kaino 10 Thierry Dusautoir 9
Richie McCaw 10 Julien Bonnaire 9
Kieran Read 10 Imanol Harinordoquy 9
Combination 10 8
Halves
Piri Weepu 10 Dimitri Yachvili 10
Aaron Cruden 7 Morgan Parra 7
Combination 8 7
Midfield
Ma’a Nonu 10 Maxime Mermoz 9
Conrad Smith 10 Aurelien Rougerie 9
Combination 10 9
Back three
Richard Kahui 9 Alexis Palisson 9
Cory Jane 10 Vincent Clerc 9
Israel Dagg 10 Maxime Medard 9
Combination 10 8
TOTAL 190 170

In the tight-five the New Zealand front row of Woodcock, Mealamu and Franks has shown us that it is peaking perfectly. Against Australia they seemed to be able to destroy their scrum at will. In their semi against a good Welsh scrum the French held their own, but it was even. Looking at value around the field, Owen Franks is currently besting Richie McCaw in presence at the ruck, Mealamu’s ball-carrying is as superlative as ever, and Woodcock’s work-rate is also getting up there. All in all this front row is, in our opinion, the best in the World, with the French sitting at a good 80% of that.

At lock the Thorn/Whitelock combination seems to be rock solid at the lineout. Whitelock is also adept at the occasional steal. However the French are very good in this phase of the game, and Whitelock is still relatively inexperienced, hence the French shade this area, though not by much because Thorn and Whitelock are possibly a little more value in general play.

The combined value of the tight-fives is in the All Blacks favour on the back of their awesome display of forward power against Australia. The ‘Black Tide’ was evident as the tighties worked as a unit for the full 80 minutes, and we haven’t seen the same kind of thing from the French.

The loose-forwards are very close, but the trio of Kaino, McCaw and Read are the best in the World right now. Kaino’s form is simply stellar. Even so the trio they are up against is also World class, and this tussle will be the most fascinating and possibly decisive one.

In the halves both teams have selected pairings that would not have been foreseen before the tournament. France have picked two halfbacks, whereas New Zealand have lost two first-choice No.10s to injury, bringing in Aaron Cruden for the semi-final. Both halfbacks are World class, and equally influential to the way their teams play and create chances. Each of them kicks goals well. At No.10 the scores are low-ish and again equal. Cruden is better on defence than Parra however this is offset by Cruden’s inexperience of test rugby. The combination goes in New Zealand’s favour because Cruden has had more time playing outside Pirir Weepu than Parra has had outside Yachvili.

In mid-field we have the World’s best pairing in Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. The threat these two pose on attack is an immense worry for any team. On defence they are rock solid, so they get solid 10s. For the French we also have a World class pair in Mermoz and Rougerie, but they lose out to the long-standing combination of Nonu/Smith.

The back three are fairly evenly matched. France’s Palisson, Clerc and Medard have shown they can open up defences in that inimitable French style, and they are solid on defence. For the All Blacks however, we see the development of something special, with Jane and Kahui both possessed of an innate cunning when running the ball at defences. Israel Dagg is simply a nightmare to defend against, as he showed against Australia, and all three are commanding under the high-ball. Taken together this trio are hard to keep out, and very hard to get past.

The above overall advantage, on paper, to the All Blacks is a confirmation of why the betting agencies are all already giving the trophy to New Zealand.

Unfortunately for All Blacks fans, there is the small matter of having to actually win the game first. France will not be rolling up and running onto Eden Park to make up the numbers at a New Zealand Wins The Cup party.

A test of this magnitude only comes along for a player once in a lifetime, if that. Also, France live to play the All Blacks and beat them, and have done so on Eden Park itself before now. They always raise their game massively for the All Blacks, no matter what their form has been in previous matches.

With that in mind, literally anything can happen on Sunday. The above score-sheet indicates what shoould happen, but there is no way that any All Black will be thinking along those lines.

Here’s to the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final being the show-piece of rugby that it deserves to be and may the best team on the day win the trophy.

(That’s the All Blacks, in case you were wondering)

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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