'Every match is a season-defining one when you're in the black jersey'
The All Blacks are desperate to bounce back in their final test of the year having suffered a 29-20 defeat against Ireland last weekend – and that means overcoming what will undoubtedly be a passionate French side in Paris on Saturday evening.
The two nations last squared off in three tests on New Zealand soil in 2018, with the home side comfortably accounting for the tourists and winning the three matches 52-11, 26-13 and 49-14.
A year prior, the All Blacks had travelled to France to play two games, one against the top side and one against a French XV. Both matches again fell the way of New Zealand, with the test side scoring a 20-point victory in Paris.
In fact, you have to go back to 2009 to find the last time Les Blues actually tasted victory against the All Blacks, nabbing an unexpected 27-22 win in Dunedin. The last victory at home, meanwhile, came at the turn of the millennium, with France prevailing 42-33 in Marseilles.
As such, history won’t favour the home side on Saturday night – but that will just add more motivation for a French side who have come on in leaps and bounds over the past three seasons and who invariably be as passionate as ever under the lights of the Stade de France this weekend.
“Understanding the passion that comes with playing the French in Paris is one key thing,” Ian Foster said when asked what two lessons he’d tried to instil in his side this week.
“Just how special it is to play at the Stade de France against a French team that is really building momentum. We do love these big tests and I know it’s the last test of the year but in many ways, it’s a very special one.”
“And I think that the second thing is just to really make sure we’re sharp mentally. We’ve been in a routine for a long, long time but test matches require us to be really sharp [and] focussed, and I think last week we saw a little bit of a dampening of some of our decision making and this week we’ve got to make sure that we’ve really just got our mind on that 80-minute performance on Saturday.”
Saturday’s clash will mark the All Blacks’ 15th of the season – equalling the record set in 2008 for most tests played in a calendar year.
Five of those fixtures were played at home to kick-start the season while the remaining 10 have been played overseas – and the vast majority of the squad haven’t spent any time in New Zealand since first departing for Australia in late August.
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“From when we hopped on the plane, it’s our 10th test in 12 weeks. I wouldn’t call it a slog, I’d certainly call it the longest tour I’ve ever done,” Foster said. “Two lots of five tests in consecutive weeks has been demanding, there’s no doubt about it, but [we] couldn’t be more proud of the way the guys have handled themselves and the different circumstances and hotel-bound and all that sort of stuff.
“[We’re] really pleased with the physical energy that they’re displaying and there’s no doubt that everyone is aware we’re going home soon but you get in the mindset and that mentality to overcome those sort of thoughts and focus on this week [and that’s] been pretty key for us.”
While a 3-point loss to the Springboks in Australia earlier this year put an end to any hopes of a potential unbeaten season, the team were still tracking along relatively successively, tipping over the likes of Fiji, Australia, Argentina and Wales throughout the year without ever truly looking under too much pressure.
Still, the loss to Ireland has seen some suggest that Saturday’s test could be season-defining and that a 12-3 campaign would represent a less than savoury return for Foster’s All Blacks, despite the fact that NZ will end the year with the best winning record of any side in 2021 regardless of what happens in Paris.
Unsurprisingly, Foster sees things differently.
“I don’t necessarily think [it’s season-defining] but I think it’s a special test,” he said. “I think every match is a season-defining one when you’re in the black jersey. We’ve had 14 tests and obviously won 12, lost two, and we’ve got a 15th test come along.
“I think this team has achieved some great things this year. We’ve played some good rugby, we’ve now come into an experience that a number of players haven’t had which is [playing] up in the Northern Hemisphere and we’ve got to maximise our chances here.
“But we’ve also got to really show our learnings from last week and we’ve got to be sharper in how we make decisions and use the opportunities we can get. But if we can do that, I’ll be a pretty satisfied coach at the end of the night.”
Saturday’s match kicks off at the late time of 9pm CET (9am NZT on Sunday morning).
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