Chance for ABs to show their class

Weekend Herald - - Rugby - Liam Napier in Paris

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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