There will be a huge contrast in the experience of the two sides on Saturday night as reigning world champions New Zealand take on France in Cardiff. The All Blacks have named the second most capped XV in Rugby World Cup history while France have gone with the least experienced side they have fielded in a knockout match since 2003.
In fact, the New Zealand lineup has almost double the number of caps of the French side and with an average age of 29 years and 254 days is the second oldest side they have ever named. Coach Steve Hansen will be relying on the know-how of his ageing stars such as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw to be able to see off the threat of a powerful and exuberant French pack. A win for the All Blacks would see them equal Australia’s record of 12 consecutive Rugby World Cup victories.
A quarterfinal clash with France in Cardiff will bring back bad memories for New Zealand. In 2007, the all-conquering All Blacks marched into the Welsh capital and were upset by a stunning French display with saw the All Blacks four years of dominance come to nothing.
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It was a classic encounter with France, inspired by now-captain Thierry Dusautoir, triumphing 20-18 thanks to a converted try by Yannick Jauzion in the 69th minute. Now, eight years on, New Zealand revisit the scene of one of their lowest ebbs in Rugby World Cup history, and the only world cup venue they have lost at more than once, hoping to banish their demons on the road to becoming the first side to defend the crown of world champions.
They won their second Webb Ellis trophy of course in their own back yard, in Auckland in 2011, with a nail-biting one-point victory over their old rivals France. The pair have met six times at world cups and in each of the last four tournaments.
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The All Blacks edge those meetings by four wins to two, but few sides have caused them as many problems on the biggest stage than France. The seventh meeting on Saturday will make this the most played fixture in Rugby World Cup history.
Widely tipped to defend their title, New Zealand have arrived in England as the side everyone wanted to watch but they haven’t quite hit top gear as yet. Having edged past Argentina on the opening weekend, the All Blacks proceeded to brush aside the smaller nations in Pool C but they weren’t entirely convincing in those games and moments of ill-discipline saw them leak points to Namibia and Georgia. Their big names are yet to really catch fire, which could be seen as a reason for optimism or a cause for concern.
France have had to deal with the challenge of their regular six nations foes in Pool D. Seeing off Italy was the first task before dispatching the minnows of Canada and Romania. That set up last weekend’s eagerly awaited pool decider against Ireland for the right to avoid New Zealand. Ireland came out on top in a titanic tussle. It was a pulsating, bone-shattering clash and one which has had serious physical consequences for Ireland and will surely have taken some energy out of French bodies.
This quarter-final promises to be a clash of styles. France have abandoned their typical flair and pizzazz in favour of a more physical, tactical game. New Zealand are trying to be their usual brilliant selves, playing with ball in hand and attempting to carve their way through opposition defences.
But New Zealand will be acutely aware of the effectiveness of the French pack at the breakdown and at the scrums. The All Blacks will need to find a way to compete in that area or France will be able to play territory and keep the scoreboard ticking over with penalties.
There are many similarities with that Cardiff clash eight years ago. Once again New Zealand are overwhelming favourites against a France side with constant question marks over them. But France bullied the All Blacks that day and refused to be intimidated, ultimately overpowering their more skilled opponents. Don’t be surprised to see something similar from Philippe Saint-Andre’s men on Saturday.
HEAD TO HEAD STATS
Matches Played: 55
New Zealand Wins: 42
France Wins: 12
LAST FIVE MATCHES
09 Nov 2013, Paris: France 19-26 New Zealand
22 Jun 2013, New Plymouth: New Zealand 24-9 France
15 Jun 2013, Christchurch: New Zealand 30-0 France
08 Jun 2013, Auckland: New Zealand 23-13 France
23 Oct 2011, Rugby World Cup Final, Auckland: New Zealand 8-7 France
New Zealand have won eight of the last ten matches between the two sides.
France last beat New Zealand back in 2009. Dusautoir, Pascal Pape, Louis Picamoles, Mathieu Bastareud, Pascal Pape and Dmitri Szarzewski all featured in that win and are in the France squad on Saturday.
New Zealand have made four changes from last weekend’s win over Tonga. Wyatt Crockett, Brodie Retallick, Richie McCaw and Julian Savea all return to the starting XV which boasts 988 caps. Kieran Read and Ma’a Nonu are the only players who featured in the 2009 defeat to France and both are given starting places, with Nonu and Conrad Smith set to become the first centre pairing to start 60 Tests together.
Two New Zealand legends can set more records on Saturday. Skipper Richie McCaw will equal the record number of Rugby World Cup matches as captain with 11 outings as leader of the All Blacks. And if fly-half Dan Carter can score 18 points he will join Andrew Mehrtens in fifth place on the all-time list of Rugby World Cup points scorers with 163 points.
France have sprung something of a selection surprise, with Toulon battering-ram Mathieu Basteraud dropped to the bench and replaced at centre by Alexandre Dumoulin. Morgan Parra also reclaims the scrum-half spot from Sebastien Tillous-Borde while Bernard Le Roux replaces Damien Chouly at flanker.
The French have experience against the All Blacks, with Szarzewski set to become the first French player to make 13 appearances against New Zealand if he comes off the bench while Dusautoir will equal the France record of 12 starts against the All Blacks. Nicolas Mas can become the most-capped French prop of all time if he comes off the bench.
New Zealand: Ben Smith; Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea; Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Wyatt Crockett, Dane Coles, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (capt), Kieran Read
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Joe Moody, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams
France: Scott Spedding; Noa Nakaitaci, Alexandre Dumoulin, Wesley Fofana, Brice Dulin; Frederic Michalak, Morgan Parra; Eddy Ben Arous, Guilhem Guirado, Rabah Slimani, Pascal Pape, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Bernard Le Roux, Louis Picamoles
Replacements: Dimitri Szarzewski, Vincent Debaty, Nicolas Mas, Damien Chouly, Yannick Nyanga, Rory Kockott, Remi Tales, Mathieu Bastareaud
In the biggest games, you look to your biggest players for inspiration and they don’t come much bigger for New Zealand than skipper Richie McCaw. He will remember the hurt of losing to France in Cardiff eight years ago and if he doesn’t want to repeat that disappointment will need to have a massive game at the breakdown to keep the French at bay.
The captain is a specialist at winning turnovers, slowing the opposition ball down and getting his side quick ball. If he can do so again, McCaw will set the platform for the All Blacks scintillating backs to win the game.
The return of Morgan Parra to scrum-half is an interesting selection. The diminutive number nine is a very accurate goal kicker and it is perhaps with that in mind that he has got the nod. Parra will relieve Freddie Michalak of the short-range kicking duties and will be crucial in keeping the scoreboard ticking over if France can force New Zealand into conceding penalties at the breakdown and scrums.
ODDS (via Oddschecker)
New Zealand: 1/5
Stadium: Millennium Stadium
Date & Time: October 17th, 2015, kick off 20.00 BST
UK TV Coverage: ITV1 – 7.30pm
New Zealand to win by ten points or fewer