RWC opener to write another chapter rich All Blacks-France history


World Cup openers don’t get any more enticing than New Zealand and France.

We all know the rich history these nations share on the pinnacle stage. The famous French upsets in 1999 and 2007 that deeply scarred a nation; New Zealand’s triumphs in the 1987 and 2011 finals on home soil, and the revenge-filled 2015 quarterfinal victory in Cardiff.

This weekend, the latest chapter will be woven in the Parisian night.

RUGBY WORLD CUP 2023: Squads | Schedule | Podcast

Intrigue continues to build as both teams lose influential figures to injuries.

The All Blacks will be without four starters after Jordie Barrett became the latest setback following a niggly knee injury that prevented him training this week.

Since switching from fullback to inside centre last year Barrett has started seven of the last eight Tests for the All Blacks. Anton Lienert-Brown is a classy replacement, but he cannot replicate Barrett’s direct, physical assets.

The All Blacks are also missing three starting forwards – tighthead prop Tyrel Lomax, in-form blindside flanker Shannon Frizell and centurion lock Brodie Retallick leaving question marks hovering over their pack after they were steamrolled by the Springboks in their worst defeat in history at Twickenham two weeks ago.

France have a string of casualties, too. Before entering the tournament they lost world-class playmaker Romain Ntamack and leading loosehead prop Cyril Baille. Mainstay lock Paul Willemse then went down while training at home, and powerful centre Jonathan Danty is another doubtful for the opening match.

If that wasn’t enough to contend with, Willemse’s replacement, Bastien Chalureau, has been embroiled in a racism row after receiving a suspended six-month prison sentence for an alleged racially motivated attack in Toulouse in 2020. The fallout from Chalureau’s recent call up extends to French President Emmanuel Macron visiting the team and telling coach Fabien Galthie he didn’t want the controversy getting out of hand.

It wouldn’t be a World Cup without France courting controversy, after all.

For all those deflections and distractions, the World Cup opener promises to deliver compelling on-field drama.

The big question, though, surrounds the wider ramifications of this match. As the Springboks proved four years ago, losing the opening game is far from terminal.

While the Springboks were the first team in World Cup history to drop their first match and claim the Webb Ellis Cup, their experience of losing to the All Blacks and being pushed into an easier side of the draw, having played Japan in the quarterfinals and Wales in the semis, serves a timely reminder that all is not won and lost on opening night.

Naturally, France and the All Blacks seek victory to safeguard a smooth passage to the knockouts, to build confidence and momentum from their toughest group match.

The reality, though, is that both teams will be highly favoured to defeat Italy and therefore progress from their pool. And with anything possible in their crossover group, where Ireland, South Africa and Scotland lie in wait, the quarterfinals are always going to be the defining juncture for France and the All Blacks. Such is the jeopardy attached to having the world’s top five nations absurdly lobbed on one side of the draw.

With that juncture in mind, one could argue the team who emerges with the least serious injury setbacks could best placed.

Gauging where France and the All Blacks sit is difficult following their respective injury challenges.

France, though, on the strength of their renaissance under Galthie, their dominant victory over the All Blacks in 2021 – their only meeting in the last five years – and home advantage, deserve to start favourites.

Memories of that 2021 defeat, when the All Blacks suffered successive losses in the northern hemisphere for the first time in the professional era, have been used as motivation this week.

“There’s still a knot in our gut from the last time we were here,” All Blacks defence coach Scott McLeod said as the team prepares in Lyon this week. “That hurt and we’ve held onto that a little bit.

“We’ve shown clips to the boys, so we see similarity in the way they play now but they’ve added a lot of kicking to space which is more of a threat. They ran out and around us, through us, and we can’t allow that.”

As day gives way to night Stade de France will whip itself into a frenzied atmosphere – as will the many fan zones dotted around Paris. The All Blacks have attempted to use that backdrop to turn the heat up on the hosts.

“When you are the home nation, the pressure is massive,” All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan said. “We have heard that through our boys a little bit, the last couple of days, that have been involved in a few World Cups – some of them four. They talked around that and we will use that as a little bit of energy. France have got a few dings, we have got a few dings as well. It should be a hell of a contest, in what is a very special stadium.”

That much can be guaranteed. Anything more can only be gleaned once the quarterfinal opponents are eventually confirmed.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *