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RUGBYPASS+ Ireland, not France, will be the All Blacks' toughest test

Ireland, not France, will be the All Blacks' toughest test
1 year ago

It’s easy to get carried away in the hype-machine that is France.

In Antoine Dupont, Les Bleus have perhaps the best player in the world controlling proceedings from the No 9 jersey.

There’s talent throughout the squad, with head coach Fabien Galthie deciding that instead of having to make a choice between Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert in the No 10 jersey, he can just slip them both into the line-up.

And with all the history between France and New Zealand, and the World Cup looming large in 2023, the final match of the season between the All Blacks and Les Bleus is appealing for all sorts of reasons.

But with all the external focus on France, it’s easy to forget that the toughest game of the All Blacks’ season could actually be kicking off this weekend in Dublin against a criminally underrated Ireland side.

Ireland backed up their 2016 success over the All Blacks with their first-ever win at home against Steve Hansen’s side in 2018. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

After brushing aside the likes of the United States, Wales and Italy in successive weekends, recording over 200 points in the process, New Zealand will finally get a stern challenge, almost two months after South Africa terminated any chances of a perfect season from the men in black.

Over the two games against the Springboks, the All Blacks were tested in the contact zone and tested in the air and head coach Ian Foster would be the first to admit that they were found wanting.

While Foster and his charges have had ample time to work on both those shortcomings, their performance against Italy over the weekend will have Ireland licking their lips.

Yes, it’s unlikely that many (if any) of the players who featured prominently in the 47-9 victory will be called upon to back-up in the starting line-up in Dublin, but the fact that the All Blacks struggled hugely to defuse the Azzurri’s high ball game presents a great opportunity for Ireland.

Italy crowded the area underneath the high ball in a similar tactic to what the Springboks employed against the British and Irish Lions earlier in the year, and the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship, and Damian McKenzie struggled to get clean access to catches, shelling the ball on half a dozen occasions.

While the All Blacks did blast the Irish to pieces last time the sides squared off, in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, that was played on a dry track where NZ were able to cut loose on attack. The conditions couldn’t be more different this coming weekend.

While McKenzie’s hands weren’t up to standard, it’s how the rest of the All Blacks struggled to give their fullback any protection that will have Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton fizzing in anticipation.

Regardless of the All Blacks’ disjointed performance against Italy, which doesn’t reflect the standard of the first-choice XV, New Zealand have certainly struggled more with Ireland in recent years than France.

The last four games between Ireland and NZ are shared two apiece, with Ireland claiming the last match played in Dublin.

While the All Blacks did blast the Irish to pieces last time the sides squared off, in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, that was played on a dry track where NZ were able to cut loose on attack. The conditions couldn’t be more different this coming weekend, with showers forecast all week and sure to turn the match into a bit of a slug-fest on Saturday afternoon.

Ireland have also been quietly going about their work over the past two years without receiving any of the hype or praise dished out to England, Wales, Scotland or France, despite achieving similar results.

More to the point, Ireland clearly know how to beat the All Blacks, something France haven’t achieved since 2009.

France’s last win over the All Blacks came in 2009, when Les Bleus triumphed 27-22 at Carisbrook. (Photo by Photosport)

NZ and France have met 12 times over the last decade, with NZ claiming victory on all 12 occasions. Only three times have France even come within one score of their opposition, with the All Blacks regularly managing 20 or 30-point victories (and winning by almost 50 in 2015).

That’s not to say that France won’t pose a problem for the All Blacks – or even potentially beat them – but logic suggests that Les Bleus are still a long way off the finished product.

While they’ve been making great strides over the past two years and have one of the youngest squads of the tier-one nations, a squad who could stick together for the next two or three World Cups, they’re still yet to really convince that they’re the real deal.

It hasn’t helped that France have rarely been able to assemble their full-strength side.

In last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, the replacement for the end of year tours, France were only once able to field their top line-up but they still made it to the final of the competition where their young brigade were pipped at the post by England.

When France have managed to stay under the radar, they’ve put out some exceptional performances, but when the drums start beating for their success, they seem to struggle.

It was a similar story with the inexperienced side that travelled to Australia earlier this year.

Yes, it was admirable that a side lacking first-choice players such as Dupont, Ntamack, Cyril Baille, Bernard le Roux, Gregory Alldritt and Gael Fickou came within a whisker of tipping over the Wallabies in their backyard – in the same way that it was admirable a France side lacking those same players came close to taking out the Autumn Nations Cup – but until the top side is able to prove they can consistently play to their potential, then all that’s left is a side which could amount to something quite impressive.

In this year’s Six Nations, France were tipped to take out the competition after England were bested by Scotland in the opening week. That didn’t eventuate, however, with Les Bleus falling to England by three points, then also suffering at the hands of the Scots in the final round.

A year earlier, they were running hot after scoring wins against England, Italy and Wales to kick off the tournament, only to fall to Scotland in the fourth week of action. France ultimately finished the competition in second place, losing out to England on points difference.

When France have managed to stay under the radar, they’ve put out some exceptional performances, but when the drums start beating for their success, they seem to struggle.

It may not have been easy pickings, but France eventually managed to subdue a spirited Argentina and score a first-up win in the Autumn Nations Series. (Photo by Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Against an Argentina side which has managed just three victories over the past two seasons, and just one over tier-one teams this year (a Wales team lacking its British and Irish Lions, at that), France struggled to find their rhythm and it wasn’t until the final 10 minutes that Les Bleus looked home safe.

Ireland, meanwhile, thrashed a Japan side that came within a whisker of besting the Wallabies in Oita a few weeks ago.

The All Blacks are yet to face truly tough opposition on this northern tour, having taken on an understrength Wales side and perennial under-achievers Italy, and they might be in for a shock when the rain arrives at Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Ireland, who haven’t received the kudos they deserve as of late, will be baying for blood.

It’s entirely possible that France do play to the potential that everyone around the rugby world already recognises when they come up against New Zealand in two weeks’ time because, generally speaking, they tend to play to the level of their opposition.

But it’s not France that pose the biggest threat to the All Blacks’ finishing their European tour undefeated.

Ireland are sitting on a six-match winning streak, have tasted recent success against the All Blacks, and are a side that, more often than not, are happy to deal with the pressure that comes with facing the best sides in the world.

Ian Foster and the All Blacks certainly won’t be underestimating Ireland in Dublin this weekend, the nation who very well could be the toughest opposition faced by New Zealand this year.

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