Is there a secret recipe for beating the All Blacks? The most significant result on the recent end-of-year tour, New Zealand’s 40-25 loss to France in Paris in the penultimate match of the final weekend, suggests that there’s a growing consensus. The New Zealanders were, after all, coming off a defeat by Ireland in Dublin, and two losses in a row are as rare as a golfing albatross for the All Blacks.
France’s success started off the field, on the selection table. Sir Graham Henry has gone on record, stating that the ability to select the right people is the most essential quality of all for a head coach, and France took their cue from England’s World Cup victory over the All Blacks back in 2019 at Yokohama.
Eddie Jones had taken a very un-English risk in picking his team for that crucial semi-final. Instead of opting for the usual English comfort blanket of a massive set of tight forwards expert at the set-piece, he picked two ball-handling props (Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler), two locks who had both started games at blindside flanker for their country (Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes), and two genuine openside flankers in the back row (Sam Underhill and Tom Curry).
Lawes captained England from No 6 during the recent Autumn series and had an outstanding tour of South Africa for the British and Irish Lions in the same position in the summer. His selection in the second row left England with, as Jones joked afterwards, “two and a quarter jumpers”, but the risk was fully justified by the performance on the field.
Jones recognized that you cannot hope to beat New Zealand without an extra range of activity in your tight five. In the semi-final, Itoje and Lawes were outstanding. Itoje captained a lineout in which he won seven throws and Lawes won six, and they completed 24 tackles between them. Itoje dropped in five turnovers just for good measure.
Both showed their value in the loose, against the most lethal open-field attack in world rugby:
In the first example, Lawes runs all the way past Tom Curry from midfield to make a tackle on Jack Goodhue in a dangerous countering situation for the All Blacks; then gets up off the ground to knock down George Bridge near the side-line a couple of seconds later. In the second, Itoje runs from the right half of midfield to smash Anton Lienert-Brown in the tackle.
That bonus ability of tight forwards to match up with backs in space is essential when playing teams from New Zealand, and that is what France had in mind when they picked Cameron Woki in the second row to face the All Blacks in Paris.
Woki is by nature and inclination a number 6, not a second-rower, but France were prepared to embrace the risk at set-piece time in order to get that bonus in open field. Woki captained a lineout which only returned a 70% retention rate (about 15% below acceptable), but it was solid when it mattered, in both red zones:
It is Woki soaring above Sam Whitelock to make the receipt near his own goal-line in the first instance; on attack, it is Woki making the catch and providing the platform for the drive, and eventual touch-down by hooker Peato Mauvaka – not once but twice. The risk factor can be best illustrated by a 24th minute lineout which is also part of the highlight reel:
They also embraced a degree of risk at the scrum:
Woki is on the left of the France second row, and loses contact with the prop in front of him, as loose-head Cyrille Baille is pushed off his shoulder under pressure and the left side of the French scrum retreats.
Cameron Woki did not always supply the Itoje/Lawes effect in chasing down New Zealand backs, just failing to haul down the fastest man on the paddock, Rieko Ioane, in this memorable counter-attack sequence:
Close, but no cigar.
But overall, the selection punt came out well in credit. In addition to his four lineout wins, Woki came out top of the French forward ball-carriers with six runs for 52 metres, and was in the top three for tackles with 12 (Jelonch topped the charts with 17), with one dominant hit and a forced fumble for good measure. The other ‘genuine’ second row (Paul Willemse) came in at six tackles, to put the stat in context.
France’s third try of the game was ignited by Woki’s defensive pressure off the line, which caused a fumble by New Zealand tight-head Nepo Laulala and led eventually to France’s second score from a short-range driving lineout.
Woki’s activity and aggression in defence was a consistent theme throughout:
His range makes him one of the first tight forwards selected to fold around the corner to the far side of rucks from lineout, and that is no mug he is wrestling back in contact. It is none other than Ardie Savea, who makes a living through outstanding second effort, and metres made after the first contact in the tackle.
It meant that when New Zealand had the ball, their handling and retention skills were under constant pressure:
Woki’s initial defensive effort (a high hold-up tackle on Samisoni Taukei’aho) causes a significant pause in recycling and slows the tempo of attack. With France’s defence on the front foot, the big number 4 rushes up to chop down Richie Mo’unga in the midfield two phases later, and set up a turnover opportunity at the breakdown for Romain Taofifenua.
On attack, Les Bleus were able to use Cameron Woki’s extra mobility and running power out wide with profit:
Woki is on the outside end of the forward pod off the France number 10 Romain Ntamack when Damian Penaud makes his break, and it was a channel that Woki occupied to critical effect at the single biggest turning point in the match:
There are only two points separating the teams when Ntamack collects the ball behind his own line and beats two New Zealand chasers to initiate an echo of the counter ‘from the end of the world’ in 1994. Having already made a tremendous recovery run in defence, Cameron Woki is the last man at the back at the start of the play:
20 seconds later, he has run 90 metres up the field to provide width in the 13 channel and win the decisive moment of the match:
Ardie Savea was yellow-carded at the ruck and Les Bleus never looked back, harvesting all of the final 13 points of the scoring in the game.
Teams from the Northern Hemisphere have been following England’s lead and using their semi-final victory over New Zealand as a template in their analysis of ‘how to beat the All Blacks’. The formula starts with forward selection, and tight forwards with a lot of back row ability picked in the second row: think Courtney Lawes for England, Iain Henderson for Ireland and now Cameron Woki for France.
Woki’s performance for Les Bleus typified an approach where northern sides are increasingly willing to sacrifice some set-piece authority in order to maximize their range and effectiveness outside it. England won in Yokohama with “two and a quarter jumpers”, and France only retained 70 per cent of their own lineout ball in Paris.
The impact of players like Lawes, Itoje, Henderson and Woki in open field has justified the selection. They tackle like back-rowers, win turnovers and carry ball effectively on attack. They all have terrific engines and can keep playing until the end of proceedings.
Cameron Woki was even trusted to shift from second row to the blindside flank on the hour mark at the Stade de France. It is 14 years since the All Blacks lost to three different opponents within the same calendar year (2007-2008), so the ball is very much in New Zealand’s court.