It was the quarter final everybody wanted and it’s the quarter final everyone received.
A rematch of the 2011 Rugby World Cup final and the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter final that saw the All Blacks eliminated from the tournament. Adding a little more spice to the occasion is the fact that Millennium Stadium is the same venue where the All Blacks suffered the humiliating defeat in 2007.
With the memories of that quarter final all too fresh in the All Blacks’ minds as well as the 2011 final in which they almost came undone, having been drawn to play France is probably one of the best things to happen to New Zealand at this year’s tournament.
They have looked slightly short of their free-flowing rugby that we all know they’re capable of. And since their win against Argentina on the first Sunday of the tournament, they haven’t seemed to click out of second gear.
However with an intense physical battle beckoning against France’s brute of a forward pack, you can be sure that nothing is left in the tank against Les Bleus, especially after having been bitten by them numerous times in the past.
On the other side of the park, while the French have looked dangerous at times, their tournament has stalled. Looking a little average against Romania and Ireland, they’ll have to start well and start fast against an All Black side that knows what’s in front of them.
They do have the talent to stun the All Blacks but they’re going to have to muscle up at the breakdown and go toe-to-toe with them at scrum time – something that France will either do or they won’t (there are very few in-betweens for the French side – like always).
You can guarantee that the French have been watching and re-watching every second of the All Blacks’ loss against the Wallabies during the Bledisloe Cup as the Australians carved a way in which teams can target the world’s number one team.
The All Blacks have looked a little vulnerable at set piece with a struggling scrum and as well as the breakdown. But whether or not the French have the game plan and the intensity to really push a very classy New Zealand side is yet to be determined.
There is no two-ways about it, France will have to be at their very best against the All Blacks to get any kind of result on Saturday. Their back row will have to play the game of their lives and their kicking game is going to have to be razor sharp.
If there are any weaknesses in the All Black side, it’s their scrum and Nehe Milner Scudder and Julian Savea’s aerial vulnerability however, it will be in the set piece and the breakdown where the game is won and loss.
The All Blacks know that they can win playing poorly but more importantly for the New Zealanders is that they know that they won’t win against France on Saturday should they be as lackadaisical at the break down and around the fringes as they were in their pool matches. That means you guarantee they’re going to come out with real purpose.
Look for them using their popular second channel outside the ruck play utilising the hands of their props and the physicality of the likes of Retallick and Whitelock while you can guarantee that France will employ a rush defence to cramp Aaron Smith and Dan Carter.
New Zealand’s key player
Richie McCaw – McCaw is up there as arguably one of the all-time best openside flankers of all time and he has demonstrated this once again at this World Cup with his ability to slow opposition ball and steal possession.
France’s key player
Freddie Michalak – Inconsistency has played its part in his career but currently Michalak is playing some of the best rugby of his career and when he is on top, the team he’s playing for tends to win. Top-level distribution and a beautifully balanced rugby brain make him central to France’s chance of turning over the All-Blacks.
Battle to watch
Louis Picamoles vs. Kieran Read – These two men are at the peak of their powers and their contest will be a sight to behold. They set the mark for both their teams in attack and defence and will both have to play to their best if they want to leave the field as World Cup Semi-Finalists.
New Zealand 30-13 – This contest has been notoriously close at World Cups but the French inconsistencies give New Zealand the edge. New Zealand have looked, as they always do, so dominant in all facets of their game that it’s hard to see the result going any other way.