There are definitely a lot of elements in the French game that have changed over the years.
Looking at the French squad, you notice there isn’t a lot of Castres or Montpellier players in there – the two Top 14 finalists – which sort of sums up where French rugby is, with the best clubs now relying on a mix of both foreign and French players to find success.
However, what is happening with the influx of foreign players in the French game – especially in their club competitions – is that the skill level of the French players is increasing individually.
Where individuals – like front rowers and locks – previously performed only their core roles, I think that they’ve elevated their level of play and expanded their skill set across the park after seeing foreign players in their club competitions perform outside of those core roles.
If we look at Uini Atonio, the prop – I know he’s New Zealand-born, but he is a very skilful front rower. In my eyes, he’s got the same style of play as former All Black Charlie Faumuina. Someone like that offers a new dynamic to the French side.
Sticking with the front row, I think it’s a real shame that rested captain Guilhem Guirado won’t feature, because I think he’s the best hooker in the world. To have seen him and a healthy Dane Coles go at it would have been amazing.
But, if there’s another threat to grace the rugby field in the No.2 jersey it would be Racing’s Camille Chat. His workrate is huge and his anticipation for the game is massive. It always shows when he’s playing so I hope that he’s in their starting team for the duration of the series. He’s just great to see.
A new French combination to look out for will be in the halves.
I’m picking that halfback Morgan Parra will play a huge part when he returns to the international arena after last featuring for Les Bleus at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. I’m excited to see how the veteran links up with 22-year-old first-five Anthony Belleau.
He was just a young kid, but watching Anthony Belleau absorb all of the information from Jonny Wilkinson during my time at Toulon was unbelievable.
If you look at the way Belleau plays, you can see a lot of Jonny in him. Just little things, like the depth that he stands in the line. He also doesn’t mind the physical contact. He likes to just get in there and get stuck into it.
That’s without considering series captain Mathieu Bastareaud. Everyone thinks that potentially he’s not the greatest defender, but I would very much argue that in a linked team he’s a great defender.
In terms of leadership, Bastareaud is a leader through his actions on the field. He is very much a man that can grab a game and really take it on. He likes a challenge when it comes in front of him.
In saying that, he does have some weaknesses. He does require strength around him. He performs best when the whole team has collectively bought into what they are trying to do.
The surprise package for the All Blacks to handle will be Racing wing Teddy Thomas. There’s danger in underestimating how he plays. He’s got an ability to slip tackles, he’s back to his best form and has been outstanding.
In terms of style, I think the French will be able to dictate the pace of the game. Where the New Zealand side tends to play at a high pace the full 80 minutes, the French have the ability to play at a high pace and then slow the game down and let the forwards do their thing when the time is right.
I still think the glaring weakness of the French is their tactical kicking. Can they execute a tactical kicking plan to match that of Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith and the like? Tactical kicking would be my area of doubt for the French and where I think New Zealand are definitely far superior.
In summary, I wouldn’t write off the French. I would be wary that there isn’t a lot of combinations in the squad that you would see in the traditional French sides that we have seen play against New Zealand, but I think that also adds an element of danger, because despite their relative unfamiliarity there is no doubt they will come together.
They are away, and this time of the year is very tricky for them as they’ve just come off big seasons and heading into summer. You come down here and it’s cold, wet and miserable but I think elements like that will bring them together and I think they’ll be a surprise package that could deliver something pretty magical.
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