Part 4 (!) of a 3-part series on the rivalry between two of the top contenders to win the Rugby World Cup in France in 2023. The teams play the opening match of the RWC in Paris and could very well end up playing one another in the final several weeks later.
First, lets stay for a bit in the present day. It’s 2022, and of this writing, the All Blacks have just lost three of their last four matches – two of those to a very deserving Irish team – and they may have even lost three times this month to Ireland, depending on when you read this.
Of course, France was the other loss; the All Blacks being outplayed at the end of a long 2021 season 25-40 in Paris to a quality French team that ended a 14-game losing streak to New Zealand. French coach Fabien Galthié said ‘We had this game in mind as a moment of truth. The team lived up to what we promised ourselves.’ All Black captain, Sam Whitelock, meanwhile, stated ‘that’s not the way we wanted to finish our year … No excuses at all, they were better than us. It hurts to say that, but we’ve got to hold on to that feeling because we don’t want to feel it again.’ ‘That win will stay with me for a long time’ said captain Antoine Dupont, ‘because it was the All Blacks, because the Stade de France was sold out, and because we had our families and friends in the stands.’
As so often is the case when the All Blacks lose, especially two matches in a row, shock waves are felt, alarm bells go off, and to many people, heads should be rolling. It’s better, however, to let the heads cool off and think things through. Maybe France (and Ireland) have done the All Blacks a favour.
The November 2021 victory was not another French win like the rugby world cup successes against NZ. In fact, far from it. And to prove it was no fluke, the French went on to become the 2022 Six Nations Grand Slam Champions (France’s first title since 2010).
France 2022 Six Nations Record: Italy (37-20), Ireland (30-24), Scotland (36-17), Wales (13-0) and England (25-13). Points for – 141. Points against – 73. France trailed its opposition for only 13 minutes of the entire Six Nations tournament, and that was against Italy in their opening match.
Half-back Antoine Dupont was the Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship (to go along with his World Player of the Year award in 2021). But there were many players across the park who were among the very best of the tournament – for example, Damian Penaud, Gaël Fickou, Melvyn Jaminet, Gabin Villière, Yoram Moefana, Grégory Alldritt, Julien Marchand Paul Willemse, Cyril Baille and François Cros.
A number of these players did not travel to play Japan in July 2022 (unavailability due to professional team commitments and senior players being rested) but they will no doubt feature later in the year when France plays Australia and South Africa. With newer players being drafted into the team for the Japanese tour, France is purposefully building greater depth in its squad.
Rugby World Cup 2023
Every team will be there to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. As Shaun Edwards, defense coach for France said a couple of years ago, ‘You don’t go into competitions just to make the numbers up.’ Edwards has been an influential, pivotal member of the French rugby renaissance, and another example of an essential cog for a team that is gifted with talent on the field, but which is also trained well, focuses on the fundamentals, has had a development plan for the younger players, and looks to make subtle changes tactically in matches that lead to bigger outcomes – like points, for example. It is no surprise that France is a world class team.
There is over one hundred years of rugby history between France and New Zealand. Both teams have contributed massively to RWC history, and in many respects it would be fitting to see the two teams play one another in the Final in France next year. It’s possible.
But given the increasing quality and competitiveness of several other international teams (i.e., South Africa, Ireland, and England - plus Wales and Australia who can’t be dismissed either), it is not a done deal for either France or New Zealand to make the final.
France and New Zealand play the opening match of the tournament. As luck - or destiny - would have it, they are in the same Group. If they finish as the top two teams in the group, they will likely play either South Africa or Ireland, who are also in a group together. Two remarkable quarter-final match-ups, either of which would be worthy of being the Final itself.
We already know many of the challenges the All Blacks will bring to the opening match, including the experience of being outplayed by England in the 2019 RWC semi-final. Looking positively at the opener, if NZ loses, they will (presumably) have learned from the experience and take that into the next big match against either South Africa or Ireland.
The French, however, will also come to the opening match with a number of challenges, and a loss to New Zealand maybe be more difficult to process psychologically going forward.
Three Big French challenges
Pressure – How will the French team cope with the home team pressure? There will be hundreds of thousands of supporters right behind them, asking them to do what they need. And then there’s the pressure of the rugby world writ large, knowing they will enter the finals as one of the firm favourites, and the media will be all over them. Yes. Plenty of pressure. The All Blacks know such pressure well.
Experience – Does the current French team have the experience to get them through to the RWC final? There were just 12 French players in the 2022 Six Nations tournament who played in the 2019 RWC in Japan (Currently there are 18 All Blacks who have that experience). Will RWC experience be a factor that makes a difference to the top teams?
Analytical microscope – South Africa, Ireland, England and New Zealand will have analyzed every possible angle to the French team between now and the RWC Finals and will be developing strategies and tactics to neutralise the French strengths and capitalise on their weaknesses.
And then there are the key success factors for all the teams, including clear strategy, tactics and shapes, fitness, psychology and mental preparedness, squad depth and injuries. The French team and its management, know all these things well and are planning accordingly.
But when it’s all said and done, it comes down to the match on the day. One match when so many different additional variables are at play – weather conditions, wear and tear on players of the tournament itself, the bounce of the ball, external circumstances like family crises from nowhere, and those moments of magic and sheer brilliance when individual players change a game and a tournament by doing the extraordinary.
Which is why, if you can’t afford to be there, that you need to take some time off work or call in sick … whatever ... find a big screen with your mates and/or your family and get 100% absorbed in the later months of rugby in 2023.
So, as promised in an earlier article, here’s the crystal ball. It’s dusted off and rubbed, but not necessarily that accurate – well, we’ll see next year – for the opening match.
France versus New Zealand – on the Day – 8 September 2023
The two teams face off at one another before the haka. The French team is already being hailed as heroes. It is the All Blacks on this day who are the underdogs. They don’t mind one bit. Perhaps on this day, more than ever before, they are singularly focused and standing there determined to show they are worthy of being called World Champions.
It has been a rocky road to Paris for the kiwis. A massive overhaul of the management in 2022 has meant that although Ian Foster is still Head Coach, it is already known he will step down after the RWC and be replaced by Crusader’s coach Scott Robertson. An internal review determined that continuity was essential in the lead-up to the 2023 RWC. The NZ Rugby Union decided that Foster still leads the coaching but that an additional Advisory Team – a ‘brain trust’ of sorts, be appointed to guide and support strategic and tactical development.
Despite several losses, the All Blacks performances have improved over the past year and several new players have emerged as vital cogs in the squad. A number of seasoned ‘veterans’ were dropped from the team when the final RWC squad was announced. The NZ public is not happy, but there is a simmering and growing hope that maybe some magic will happen.
The French team walk right up to the All Blacks as a thundering haka is performed. The crowd is going wild. David Kirk’s words have been quoted in the dressing room and are in the minds of the men in black - ‘We are the best. Every yard, every tackle, every kick, make it count. It's going to be close today, %*&$# close. So, get stuck into them right from the start; for the first 10 minutes, just think up! Up! Up! The first 10 minutes, the first 10 minutes, that's where the game will be won or lost.’
The French may still have the flair and brilliance of previous French teams, but their unpredictability – what made them so dangerous – is no longer there. They have become predictable and the NZ team, like the other RWC contenders, have been analysing their weaknesses and strengths and developing specific strategies and tactics for months now.
The French know this.
It might not be obvious, but the French players are nervous. So much, it seems, is riding on this match.
But they know the match, like the tournament itself, its also a game of chess. They too, have tricks up their sleeve and have been told constantly by the coach that this is just one match of many, let’s not show everything we have – save some of our plays for the knock-out stage.
The All Blacks camp has adopted the same approach. Yes, the first ten minutes are important for sure, but the ‘end-game’ – winning the World Cup – is why they are there.
The All Blacks really want to win this match but are also using it to give the younger members of the team experience at the highest level, as the lessons learned will put them and the team in a better position in the knock-out games. A number of the senior players are nowadays used more strategically, coming off the bench – an approach that has been paying dividends over the past few months.
On the powerful, impactful bench today, for example, are Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Joe Moody, Todd Blackadder and Beauden Barrett. Sam Whitelock is starting with Tupou Vaa’i, and Scott Barrett is in his now common role wearing the No 6 jersey. Ardie Savea is the openside flanker, with Cullen Grace in full charge at No.8. The new look front row is led by Samisoni Taukei'aho. It is a strong and fast forward pack with several lineout options available. Dalton Papalii is being rested for this match.
The French meanwhile, are playing their full strength team, recognizing that a good start – a comprehensive win over the All Blacks – is critical to their entire campaign. Plus, that’s what the French people want and it’s what their President, Emmanuel Macron wants – he told them as much when he met the team in their changing room before the kick-off.
Mo’unga kicks-off, deep into the French 22. An over-zealous follow-through by the All Black forwards leaves a French winger injured, writhing on the ground. Tempers instantly flare. The capacity crowd boos loudly.
The next fifteen minutes are deafening. Players struggle to hear the calls in the first three lineouts. No tries are scored in the first half, although Fakatava comes close skirting down the blindside after being fed the ball by Grace who broke off the back of the scrum 15 metres out from the French line. The All Blacks dominate 1st half possession thanks to the forward pack that’s on fire. Penalties are exchanged over the forty minutes, leaving the teams level 9-9 at halftime.
The game opens up slightly in the second half, but both teams are still cautious and prefer to kick instead of running with the ball in their own halves. In the middle of some scrappy broken play Grégory Alldritt makes a break on the All Black 40 metre line and then sends a long arcing pass over the heads of Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan to Moefana who is running at full speed. Caleb Clarke runs across the park and makes a diving tackle, but its too late as Moefana’s momentum takes him over the line three metres in from the corner post. The conversion is missed though, the pressure perhaps, but France is ahead 14-9 with 25 minutes left to play.
At this point Aaron Smith comes on. Fakatava has played a great game, but the All Blacks need some lightning-fast passes to take advantage of tired French forwards’ legs and create space out in the wider channels. With more than 100 test appearances on the big stage Smith, is ideally suited to close out the match. Five minutes later Beauden Barrett replaces Mo’unga and teams up with his brother Jordie who has been playing a solid game at 2nd five. Blackadder and Retallick come on the field and give an added energy jolt to the forward pack that today has given everything.
With ten minutes remaining, out of nowhere Taukei'aho runs around the side of a maul on halfway and steamrolls Antoine Dupont. Dupont loses the ball, which bobbles around behind the French backs. It’s picked up by Blackadder, who storms over the 22-metre line. Will Jordan, of course - who else - is there with him now as Blackadder forces Melvyn Jaminet to commit to the tackle. Blackadder offloads to Jordan who cuts right, away from the desperate French defense, and dives over the line in the corner. Try. France 14 New Zealand 14.
Jordie Barrett’s conversion attempt agonisingly hits the upright, and the score remains 14-14.
Five minutes left on the clock. Maybe a draw is a fitting end to the match. A torrid affair at times with neither team wanting to give their opponent opportunities to mount attacks or counter-attacks. Overall, they’re evenly matched up front. If you want forwards to be duking it out for most of the game, this is the game for you. The All Black coaches are happy.
The French take a short kick-off along the ground, catching the All Blacks by surprise. The ball is knocked on at the 40-metre line. The French have one more scrum to feed. It’s almost full-time. Du Pont puts the ball in the scrum and quickly moves to the left, drawing the attention of several All Blacks. At No. 8 Julien Marchand picks up the ball and passes to back and to the right where Romain Ntamack appears to have plenty of space. With time up on the clock Ntamack sends a drop-kick to the posts. It’s a massive kick from 45 metres. It looks like it will be short.
But it’s not. It hits the crossbar and goes over. Sheer brilliance. And a tail wind. France 17 New Zealand 14. The game is over. The stadium shakes with celebration. France has given the country what it wants.
Foster, Schmidt, McMillan, McCaw, Carter and MacDonald meanwhile, although disappointed, have seen plenty today. There are wry smiles on their faces as they walk away; the odd eyebrow raised. They still have several unused tools in their toolbox, some of the French underbelly has been exposed, they are proud of the players who gave it their all and who gained immensely from this experience, and they know the team will only get better as the tournament goes on.
More importantly, they have seen the men in black playing with heart, commitment, patience and resolve. The players too, although dejected – after all, who wants to lose to the French – know that they have what it takes to be true champions. They too know that many of the tools in the strategy and tactics toolbox are still unused. No-one is seriously injured either; their self belief and faith is at an all-time high.
The French coaches, although happy with the win, are nervous. Too much exposed. South Africa is happy. Ireland is happy. New Zealand know that although they may have lost this battle, the Webb Ellis Cup is theirs for the taking. But much work is still to be done.
We’ve come a long way from Dave Gallaher and Billy Stead and the first match with the French in 1906. These days, the RWC is the most watched sports event in the world. Incredible. The quality, flair and brilliance of the All Blacks and France will ensure the sport’s popularity will grow in the years to come.
I’m glad we lost to Ireland and France in 2021. I’m okay with losing to other teams in 2022 if these loses will contribute to a better performance at the RWC. Far better to know what we know now and position the team accordingly. Let’s not get super-pessimistic with games lost. It’s what we do with the loss, what we learn from it, that’s really important – and that we make the changes that are necessary.
A ton of work still to be done, still? Yes, absolutely.
Will the All Blacks have the talent on the field to make 2023 another World Cup winning Year? Yes, absolutely.
Will Ian Foster surround himself with the world’s best to shape this team into World Champions? I sure as hell hope so.
Do the All Blacks have something to prove? Yes, absolutely.
Will 2023 prove to be the year when the French, yet again, stick it to the All Blacks at the most inconvenient moment. Well, yes, maybe.
Are the French the top contenders to win the Rugby World Cup in 2023? Yes, absolutely.
Are the French beatable? Yes, absolutely.
Can the All Blacks beat them? Yes.