In this, their front five have been magnificent. As always with the French, the game starts and finishes with the scrum. No scrum, no game is their well-worn mantra. That is why New Zealand must take them on first and foremost in the scrum.
In Nicolas Mas, William Servat and Jean-Baptiste Poux, France have a very compact and competitive front row. They will scrummage with a ferocity and intent in each and every engagement. It is the way they are. Behind them the gargantuan pairing of Lionel Nallet and Pascal Pape are picked for one reason — and it’s not to deliver lineout ball. Their job is to drive their front row into every scrum, to keep the pressure on, to sniff any weakness in that All Black scrummaging unit and drive it home if it exists. The problem is the New Zealand scrum has been pretty solid in this tournament so far.
Owen Franks has been a revelation at tight head for New Zealand, combining a voracious appetite for work in the loose with a very solid scrummaging platform on the key side of the scrum. He will have his work cut out for him on this occasion, however. This French scrum is far stronger than the one New Zealand faced in the pool stage with Luc Ducalcon, a starter in that game, not even on the bench this time out.
The French lineout has also been superb throughout the tournament with Imanol Harinordoquy imperious in the air. New Zealand must devise a strategy for dealing with him. France also put a lot of pressure on the opposition throw and were successful in stealing five Welsh lineouts last weekend. If New Zealand have a weakness then it is with the structure and organisation of their lineout. It has improved but at times looks an accident waiting to happen. One thing is certain; France will target this area and test the competency levels of the All Blacks to the full.
Even if France dominate possession, which is unlikely, there are so many question marks hanging over their attacking game that it is doubtful they could win anyway unless they decide to cut loose and completely change their approach behind the scrum. New Zealand know that and as a result will set out to kill the French at source. Franks, Tony Woodcock, Sam Whitelock and Brad Thorn are in for a very busy evening. Much will depend on them.
IF France approach tomorrow’s final with the same narrow vision that has characterised some of their contests to date, they will be dead and buried before they start. Against 14-man Wales for 62 minutes, the French choose to do the basics, take minimal risk and hoof the ball down the field in an effort to subdue the under-powered Welsh. It almost backfired and even with the numerical disadvantage for so long, Wales should have won.
The bottom line is that despite a scrum in disarray and a lineout that fell apart in the second half, Warren Gatland’s men would have won if Leigh Halfpenny or Stephen Jones had converted one of their penalty, conversion or drop goal opportunities. New Zealand won’t be as accommodating?
If France don’t come out to play, they are goosed. On the assumption they will compete at the set piece as outlined above, it then becomes a matter of what the French decide to do with the ball once they have it.
As Australia found out to their cost last weekend, there is no point in kicking it down the throat of Corey Jane, Israel Dagg or Richard Kahui. They were sublime under the high ball against the Wallabies and they’ll run it back and link up with Ma’a Nonu, Kieran Read or Jerome Kaino to inflict further damage.
Contrast that with the pathetic efforts of French full-back Maxime Medard against Wales. He made no effort to run the ball back at a Welsh defence that was vulnerable in the absence of captain Sam Warburton. It is also alien to what Medard would attempt when playing for Toulouse. In fact Guy Noves would place him on the wing with Cedric Heymans at full-back to run and link with Medard.
I couldn’t believe Lievremont refused to introduce Heymans off the bench last Sunday despite the fact that Medard was having a shocker. It said everything about the tactical approach of the French. If they continue to go down that road tomorrow then they are beaten before they start.
IN many respects, the only team capable of depriving the All Blacks of World Cup glory at this stage is themselves. France too have their demons to deal with. It ever a siege mentality was geared towards producing a performance from nowhere then surely this is the time, the place and the occasion for Thierry Dusautoir’s men. They have been dismissed, rubbished by their coach and abandoned by their own press. One senior member of the French media corps explained why half a dozen of their group walked out of a briefing with Aurelien Rougerie early in the week, describing the giant Clermont midfielder as “arrogant”. He has been covering the French national side since the days of Jean Pierre Rives and Serge Blanco and is clearly fed up with the attitude of some of the players. “We want this campaign to end — this is bloody awful”.
Bear in mind they are in a World Cup final. What would we in Ireland give to be in a similar situation? That is why this French side have to front up and not just present themselves with dignity and pride but for everything the game stands for in their country.
The one thing that has New Zealanders quaking in their boots is that France’s two most famous wins over the All Blacks came in the wake of hammerings. In the summer prior to that 20-18 quarter final win in Cardiff four years ago, the All Blacks humiliated France 42-11 and 62-10 in a two test series in New Zealand.
Prior to their pool game against New Zealand a few weeks ago, Lievremont argued when announcing a weakened side that whatever chance France had of beating Graham Henry’s men once in this tournament, they had no chance of beating them twice. This time, Mas, Servat and Harinordoquy are back having been rested for that pool game. Could it be that the most eccentric coach at this World Cup has his strategy right all along? That will keep Kiwis awake at night as this final approaches.