French mystery worries All Blacks ahead of 1st test
For the All Blacks, the first test of any season holds an element of uncertainty.
Preparation time is necessarily short, injuries often exert an onerous influence on selections, combinations are works in progress and intelligence on opponents sometimes is sparse.
But that uncertainty is magnified when the first opponent of the season is France, as it is at Eden Park on Saturday at the start of a three-test series. No team in world rugby has made a more regular habit of beating the All Blacks when least expected to do so than France.
Two of their most famous upset wins have come at Eden Park; in the Bastille Day test of 1979 when France was led to a 24-19 win by Jean-Pierre Rives and in the 1994 test when France clinched a 23-20 win with a try to fullback Jean-Luc Sadourny which became known as "the try from the ends of the earth."
For that reason, All Blacks coaches are typically diffident in predicting how their teams will perform against France. It has become a default position for those coaches to say "it depends on which French team turns up."
That is a shorthand way of saying that France on its day can be very, very good — even unbeatable if the players' hearts are in the job — but can also be very, very bad if, for any reason, the players are uninspired.
Nor does any All Blacks coach dare to anticipate how France might play. The days in which France was one of the most thrilling teams to watch in world rugby, an era which might have had its apotheosis in the 1979 test in Auckland, are long gone.
In more recent times, France has been happy to slog it out among the forwards; its forward packs have been among the best in the world and its backrows consistently of the highest caliber. If French backlines have not recently achieved the fame of their illustrious predecessors, it is not safe to predict they will not achieve a vestige of their former glory when the mood is upon them.
But France have now alloyed to their sound forward base one of the best defensive screens in world rugby and the All Blacks have not recently been adept at unpicking well coordinated defenses.
"Statistically they are the best defensive team in world rugby at the moment," All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said. "They run at about a 92 percent tackle completion rate and are only letting in one and half tries per game. So we've got a massive challenge on our hands and one that we are really excited about facing."
France coach Jacques Brunel was cautious about Hansen's endorsement.
"He is exaggerating a bit," Brunel said. "I hope we're going to have a good defense against the All Blacks on Saturday, because if not we're going to be in trouble."
The All Blacks are going into Saturday's a little under-strength because of injuries to lock Brodie Retallick, captain Kieran Read and center Sonny Bill Williams and in no mood to take the French lightly. The French squad has been in New Zealand for 10 days to prepare for the first test while the All Blacks have had less than a week.
In a condensed preparation and with injuries in key postions, the All Blacks have worked on a simplified gameplan and will emphasize discipline and the limitation of errors.
In their favor, the All Blacks haven't been beaten in their last 40 test matches on Eden Park and aren't eager to see that record lost on Saturday.