Chance for ABs to show their class
There really are no excuses for the All Blacks not to front in Paris.
Between the last test defeat in Brisbane; the strategy of resting senior players and the decimated state of the French, expectations of a statement performance this week are fully justified.
The majority of this All Blacks team hasn’t featured since falling to the Wallabies. It wasn’t so much the loss which niggled away, more the lack of quality in that performance.
Sure the Wallabies had their moments, Israel Folau especially, and deserved their victory. But they weren’t that good.
The All Blacks, by their standards, were poor. Their kicking game and decision-making were well short of where they should be. And while they frequently hit hard, the accuracy of defence and line speed dropped significantly as the match progressed.
Some three weeks on, and we will finally see what lessons have been absorbed. Forget the gallop against the Barbarians; this is a chance to put that right.
There’s also the nagging sense that, other than the Albany demolition of the Springboks and perhaps the first-test win over the Lions, the All Blacks are yet to click this season.
Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty, Aaron Smith, Dane Coles, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, and Damian McKenzie are all well rested, having not played since that deflating night at Suncorp.
No All Black likes watching on, or waiting for another crack after a loss.
“That creates its own edge,” assistant coach Ian Foster said.
“It feels good to have everyone back.”
The All Blacks have tailored their year to rest others at other various times so they should be fizzing throughout this northern tour.
At training this week and around the team hotel a squad of 43 players appears to have added energy at a valuable stage. Newbies bring a spring which tends to rub off on and keep incumbents on their toes.
“The jury is out yet whether we’ve really nailed it or not but there’s some positive signs there,” coach Steve Hansen said.
There have been disruptions; Ioane’s slow start with the mumps and Liam Squire’s absence due to a virus. But with Ioane recovering and Vaea Fifita stepping in, those are minor concerns.
The French, in typically brazen fashion, have dished out four debuts and named a rookie halves pairing that can expect to be targeted.
Large midfielder Mathieu Bastareaud, in his first test for two years, could also be turned inside and out if the All Blacks stick changes of angles.
Under Guy Noves, France throw the most offloads in world rugby and rank third for ball retention. They kick rarely, preferring to build phases and control the tempo. This approach unsettled the All Blacks last year but this time the visitors arrive ready for the set piece battle. They will look to dominant defence and attack the breakdown to win turnovers if deprived of possession.
Given those likely French tactics, the All Blacks will be keen to make kicks contestable or attacking, too.
Rain is again forecast and they have struggled in these conditions this year.
Discipline will be important. The French love to bully their way into games upfront, and have been known on more than one occasion to overstep the mark.
From an All Blacks perspective, there is also a big difference between the first and last match on tour, as this fixture was in 2016.
“I can assure you, there won’t be any last game of the year syndrome this week,” Crotty said. “I’ve already sensed the excitement around the group. It’s one of the special tests.”
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