A few thoughts on the French10:00:00, Fri 10 Nov 2017 Jim Kayes
Graham Mourie reckons the only thing predictable about the French is that they are unpredictable. It's timely advice from the former All Blacks skipper ahead of Sunday morning's test in Paris.
Mourie, who debuted for the All Blacks as their captain and was skipper in 57 of his 61 appearances in the black jersey, captained the All Blacks on two tours to France and finished with record of four wins from the six tests in his career. In 1977 they played a French Selection four times - which was often the test team by another name - and while they won all four, they duly lost the first test in Toulon before winning the second in Paris.
The All Blacks have dominated France in recent years - two spectacular failures at World Cups aside, and are heavily favoured to win again in Paris this week. But you just never know with the French.
In 1999 at the World Cup semifinal at Twickenham, when Jonah Lomu crashed over for a try early in the second half to extend the All Blacks' lead to 14 points, I turned the journalist beside me and declared "they've got it in the bag now". A stunning French revival that saw them score 23 points showed the flaw in that theory.
It was the same in 2007 when I wrote before the World Cup quarterfinal of the All Blacks complete dominance over France in recent years. The only nagging worry then was that the All Blacks were underdone, were not battled hardened by too much rest and rotation. That, along with a few others issues like some poor refereeing, saw them lose again.
Even in 2011 when the All Blacks were clearly the best team at the tournament and France were supposedly in a state of disarray, they rose superbly to the challenge in the final. As Sir Graham Henry likes to chuckle and say, "we smashed France by a point".
I was at Stade de France in Paris in 2004 when the All Blacks thrashed them 45-6, destroying the scrum and, with a succession of French props forced from the field, forcing the referee to call for Golden Oldie scrums. France were booed by their own fans. It was a remarkable evening.
They were meant to lose at Eden Park in 1994 too only to score the incredible "try from the end of the world" to snatch a 23-20 victory. So there is little point try to predict what France will do in Paris this weekend.
All we can do is look at the All Blacks team and say it is the best Steve Hansen can call on at the moment. With Brodie Retallick at home Luke Romano starts at lock - just reward for patience, perseverance and a great attitude. It's a relief to see Rieko Ioane has recovered from the mumps and will start because his pace and power compliment what Waisake Naholo offers on the other wing. And it is intriguing to see that once again the more specialist openside Matt Todd is prefered on the bench ahead of the versatile Ardie Savea.
There is a concern about how the All Blacks are playing with poor starts, falling off the pace during the match, and a reliance on one game plan (expansive attack) among the worries. Perhaps France in Paris will bring out the best in them as it did in 2004 when they finished that year in such spectacular style.
The All Blacks have not lost to France since 2009 and have beaten them in 17 of the last 20 tests with two defeats and a draw. But do not let that boost your confidence. This is France. The more shambolic they appear to be the better they seems to play. As Mourie says, expect the unexpected.