5 Jun 2018

All Blacks vs France: Will the French be easy fodder for the AB's?

7:50 pm on 5 June 2018

Just what can we expect from the French?

French back Geoffrey Doumayrou at a training session ahead of the upcoming test series against the All Blacks.

French back Geoffrey Doumayrou at a training session ahead of the upcoming test series against the All Blacks. Photo: PhotoSport

There's been plenty of All Black news over the last couple of weeks. Three new faces in the squad, a run of injuries in the last round of Super Rugby that's seen Brodie Retallick and Sonny Bill Williams ruled out for the first test and series respectively.

But while all that's been dominating headlines, there's been barely a peep about who they're actually playing this weekend at Eden Park. This despite the fact that France arrived in the country and have been preparing to take on the world champions at their most formidable venue.

There's good reason for that, though: French rugby has been in a particularly awful state for the better part of the last seven years. Even before that they really did fall backside-first into the 2011 Rugby World Cup final (and then almost won it by accident). The long and short of it is that they've been written off by pretty much everybody for the June series.

However, they have claimed one small victory before the tour has even started. The team announcement tweet has a lovely design theme, much more so than the standard All Black fare. On it are actually a lot of names familiar to rugby followers down in these parts, a surprising amount in fact. So are they really going to be easy fodder for the All Blacks?

It's always difficult to know exactly what goes on in French rugby, due to the language difference and focus on the New Zealanders playing in the Top14 - but also the dramatic coaching regime changes that can have quite the effect on the national side. I enlisted the help of journalist James Harrington, who is based in Castres in the French southwest, to help get Kiwi heads around the squad and what they might be capable of.

He says the rumours of this being a French 'B' team are accurate.

"[French coach Jacques] Brunel's lost a lot of players to injuries, and decided to give captain Guilhem Guirado and flanker Wenceslas Lauret the summer off. Long-term absentees include wunderkinds Antoine Dupont and Mathieu Jalibert, while he's also missing the services of the likes of Louis Picamoles, Paul Jedrasiak, Yoann Huget, Geoffrey Palis, Camille Lopez, Francois Trinh-Duc, Maxime Machenaud, Virimi Vakatawa, Marco Tauleigne, Lionel Beauxis and Brice Dulin," he says.

That's a lot of guys out, so the perception that this is an experienced team is a little unfounded. Only Morgan Parra has more than 50 test caps, and will be playing his first international in three years.

But the French are bringing a couple of young stars in the inside backs. Baptiste Serin made an impression when he faced the All Blacks in Paris in 2016, while plenty of hope has been placed on the shoulders on Anthony Belleau as the future of the team at first five.

"[He's] solid if generally unexciting, but has Dan Carter-coolness down already. Belleau slotted an after the hooter drop goal to take Toulon into last season's Top 14 final."

French rugby player Baptiste Serin at a training session ahead of the upcoming test series against the All Blacks.

French rugby player Baptiste Serin at a training session ahead of the upcoming test series against the All Blacks. Photo: PhotoSport

There's some high praise from a Kiwi for another French back, centre Geoffrey Doumayrou.

"Ex-Stade coach Greg Cooper reckoned that if he'd been a New Zealander, he'd have had a hatful of caps by now, rather than just the six or seven he's got for France. But his partnership with Bastareaud is iffy."

That's the 120kg midfielder Mathieu Bastareaud he's referring to. A familiar name in these parts for all the wrong reasons after he got drunk, fell through a table and then falsely claimed he'd been assaulted when they toured here back in 2009.

Other names to watch out for include lock Paul Gabrillagues, who "never knowingly takes a backward step, legally or otherwise". Plus loosies Mathieu Babillot and Fabien Sanconnie, and the effortlessly cool Teddy Thomas, who has scored eight tries in 10 tests.

However, given that a great deal of the team won't even be traveling together due to the local Top14 finals, do rugby fans back in France even care about this test series?

"They're very good at pretending, but yeah, they do," says Harrington. "This summer, though, they have the Football World Cup in Russia to distract them - so there'll be more Gallic-shruggery than normal."

And a prediction?

"Expect a more developed gameplan from the coaching staff. Brunel, Sebastian Bruno, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Julien Bonnaire had about two weeks to work up a Six Nations strategy from scratch. As a result the French campaign was based on the simplest of structures.

"Whether any French gameplan will work against the All Blacks is another question entirely. I'm not confident it'll be a 3-0 home win. I'll be hugely impressed if the French can keep the scores within 10."

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