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FEATURE How All Blacks can upset the apple cart and stun French rivals in Paris

How All Blacks can upset the apple cart and stun French rivals in Paris
9 months ago

Maybe the spiritualist writer Neal Donald Walsch was on to something after all, when he said, “Nothing happens by accident. Nothing occurs by chance. Nothing takes place without producing the opportunity for real and lasting benefit to you.” The All Blacks will certainly be hoping that the author who wrote the popular Conversations with God series of books is right.

The humbling 35-7 loss to old enemies South Africa at Twickenham two weeks ago may have come at just the right moment for the All Blacks. In the memories of the playing and coaching group, that game will be closely tied to another heavy defeat almost two years distant, the 40-25 beating by France back in late 2021.

The manner of dispatch was strikingly similar, with both opponents featuring a strong lineout drive and an opportunistic, aggressive out-to-in defence to create tries from intercept and maul. There will be a strong feeling among the New Zealand coaching group now that if they can confound Les Bleus this coming Friday, they will have also found an antidote to the Springboks at one and the same time. Out of trauma comes opportunity.

As defence coach Scott McLeod recently commented, “That [the loss to France] hurt and we have held on to that a little bit. A couple of clips have been shown, which still hurts the boys.

“We spent a fair bit of time in Germany going through that and looking at the footage and what we could have done better. Responding to the ref was one takeaway that will be consistent through this World Cup.

“However, the big areas we looked at were around the lineout, and how we responded to some tactics that the South Africans brought, but also where we didn’t adjust – both in the lineout, and around it as well; particularly with a man down, two men down.

“How we defend that, it is not something we want to train [for] or be aware of, but it’s something we have to, in today’s climate.”

In addition to the lineout drive and the need for ways to combat an aggressive, high line-speed defence, the All Blacks will also be mindful of how the French, like the Springboks, prefer to use their No 9 as the main springboard of attack. Faf de Klerk may not now be in the same stratospheric realm of operations as Antoine Dupont at this stage of his career, but both men still carry a lot of the offensive burden, and most of the playmaking weight for their teams.

The first issue thrown up by the matches against both Springboks and Les Bleus was lineout defence close to the goal-line. After more than 12 months of success in this area under the tutelage of new forwards assistant Jason Ryan, the All Blacks were suddenly out-smarted, rather than simply overpowered by the Boks.

With all eight forwards on the paddock early in proceedings, New Zealand were using what has become known as the ‘horseshoe defence’, with defenders on the edge curling around the sides of the maul early and attempting to promote alongside the ball-carrier (typically the opposing hooker) in the second or even third tier of the drive. If the circle closes completely around the ball-carrier, it spells the end of all hopes of retaining the ball, let alone scoring for the attacking side.

South Africa ‘won’ the tactical maul battle firstly by drawing the Kiwi edge defenders into positions where they would be penalised for early contact, and secondly by shifting the ball quickly around the horseshoe before it had a chance to suffocate the ball.

New Zealand’s maul defence is far more advanced now than it was in the 2021 end-of-year Test in Paris. France scored their first try after just over two minutes of play:

One of the key reasons why Akira Ioane was eventually discarded as New Zealand’s long-term hope to replace Jerome Kaino can be observed right here. No 6 Ioane has an important role on the left edge of the All Blacks’ defence in stopping the movement of the French drive towards the posts, but he never promotes to a spot where he will be effective, beyond the blocker, No 5 Paul Willemse.

The left side of the Kiwi defence is wiped out and hooker Peato Mauvaka dots down for the try. It got even worse in the 32nd minute of the first period:

Once again, Willemse wins the one-on-one fight for space on the infield corner with Akira, who simply disappears from defence of the drive towards the posts. That leaves Mauvaka with little or nothing in front of him on his passage to the line.

Since 2021, the All Blacks have lost faith with Ioane and looked for alternatives. Both the jewel they unearthed (Shannon Frizell) and his likely antagonist (130 kilo behemoth Willemse) have been struck down by injury. The battle between the men who replace them will be one key predictor of the both the maul war, and the overall result on the night.

The other mouthwatering joust is between probably the two finest scrum-halves of the last decade – New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and France’s Antoine Dupont. As the Blues’ No 9 Finlay Christie aptly commented, “I’d say if you could put them [Dupont and Smith] both into one, [the resulting player] would probably be the best of all time.

“Aaron has built his game off passing which all No 9s have to be good at. Then you’ve got Dupont, who has that other X-factor of awesome running and kicking games, and he can pull these plays out of nowhere.

“They are both world-class players. What a spectacle it is going to be to see them going head-to-head.”

What a spectacle indeed. The 2020 rule changes at the breakdown, which allowed for much faster ruck resolutions with only one or two cleanout players involved, and encouraged a much higher ratio of LQB (lightning-quick ball) probably favours the Frenchman. Where Dupont is a squat power-plug at the base, Smith is full of subtlety and finesse but can be bullied off the ball:


Even though Dupont is knocked backwards by three Kiwi defenders near the ruck after a long break by wing Damian Penaud, he keeps his feet for long enough for support to arrive, and take the ball forward again over the next few phases. New Zealand by way of contrast, end up tumbling 20 metres back downfield, with relief from the pressure their only option.

After a couple of powerful drive phases, the real strength of the modern petit generale’s game appeared later in the same sequence:

In both instances, Dupont’s strength pulls the first defender towards him and forces either a one-on-one tackle (on Gabin Villière in the red cap) or shortens up the line further out – with Richie Mo’unga all eyes for the No 9, and too tight to the ruck to turn out and reach No 10 Romain Ntamack on the scoring play.

Dupont also has the peripheral vision in the kicking game to match his running power:


A modern scrum-half frequently needs to run, or be capable of running, anywhere between seven and 10 kilometres per game at this level, and the turning-point of the entire 2021 match showcased Dupont’s lung-bursting aerobic capacity to the full:

As New Zealand push a kick deep into the French 22, the man accelerating into a defensive sprint all the way back to his goal-line is the diminutive No 9, yet he is still the first inside support on hand for Romain Ntamack and Melvyn Jaminet when they counter-attack down the left touch-line.

The man called ‘Nugget’ did not enjoy the same number of opportunities to display his wares on the day, but there was still ample evidence of the subtlety and finesse of his passing game on view for New Zealand’s first try of the game:

Smith’s head and the feet suggest ball movement right to the French D, only for him to shift late and left with a bullet pass to Jordie Barrett in the corner.

It is a template in miniature of what the All Blacks will want to achieve on a heady, momentous Friday evening at the Stade de France. They will want to provide to stouter resistance to the French lineout drive in the red zone than they managed in 2021, without incurring the wrath of the referee as they did recently at Twickenham.

They will want to play Aaron Smith’s passing into the game with better ball control – to the point where he can overshadow Antoine Dupont – while cutting out the soft intercept scores which occurred against both France two years ago, and more recently versus the Springboks in West London. Do all that, and the scene may yet be set for an opening night upset, and revenge against New Zealand’s bitterest rivals further down the line.


Bob Marler 280 days ago

cough cough

frandinand 280 days ago

Christy at another place made the Blues the favourites for this years super rugby because they had the best loose forward trio.

Derek Murray 282 days ago

Terrific analysis of two guys who may be the best 9's I've watched. As an Australian, I liked Hipwell, NFJ, Genia and Gregan but these two guys are wonderful players. Dupont may end up in discussions of the best player of all time.

Flight booked to Paris this afternoon. Can't wait for this thing to kick off

Mitch 282 days ago

Against the big, imposing forward packs such as France and South Africa, Akira Iaone has often looked like a big teddy bear on the field. Up front, the All Blacks will miss Frizell and Retallick badly.

You might be interested to know that on the other place, Spiro Zavos wrote an article which was published Wednesday morning Aussie time. He picked the Springboks to win the World Cup.

Dave 282 days ago

Smith should have Roigard as back up, can pass break takes and kick, why would you not have Finau as no 6, papalii just not the same level. Davej

Otagoman II 282 days ago

More confirmation that Akira Ioane is really a midfield back.

frandinand 282 days ago

Perhaps you should send this to JK Nic. He is still beating a drum for Ioane. Made the suggestion today that he should be the replacement for Narawa. His rationale was we need another big and strong number 6.
I wouldn't argue with that but he needs to be skilled as well and that certainly rules Ioane out.

Brian 282 days ago

Who is the ref anyway - don't want the ABs complaining again when they get chided for their ill-discipline.

Drew 282 days ago

Cant wait for this game. All Blacks will come out on a mission after their disappointing loss to the Bok and France will come out on a mission for their home support. All Blacks to scare the daylights out of France in the first 30 and possibly sneak a win.

Brian 282 days ago

France by 15!

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