It’ll be the All Blacks by ten over Les Bleus
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The first clash of 2009 for the All Blacks, with the Dave Gallaher Cup on the line, begins in Dunedin, a ground at which New Zealand and France have never before met.
Some think of the match as a retribution style clash, with the two nations having not met each other since that fateful day in October 2007.
Les Bleus broke a nation’s heart and committed one of rugby’s great upsets, defeating the overwhelming favourites of the tournament in the All Blacks.
Numerous post mortems have occurred since that dark day.
Ironically, one of the factors many believed to have conspired to bring the home team down was that All Black coach Graham Henry had developed so much depth – with over 30 world class players to choose from – that it became impossible to select only fifteen players to put on the park.
How he must wish to have such dilemmas less than two years later.
We now see an All Black team named, with bare 350 Test caps, and earning surprisingly widespread condemnation as one of the weakest New Zealand Test sides named in the professional era.
This opinion has dominated the forums so heavily that the fact that this is a French team and that there is so much passion between the two marquee rugby nations has almost gone unnoticed.
But as for revenge? It is not a word that is relevant to this All Black team.
This time last year, the All Blacks had to win back the hearts of the adoring public based on their World Cup result, and they had to do so with many of their players moving on.
A Tri Nations win for the record fourth straight year, a fifth straight Bledisloe Cup, a Grand Slam and thirteen test match victories later, and for all and sundry, the demons were laid to rest.
After all that is said and done, only four players in this All Blacks match squad lined up for the nightmare against France in Cardiff, so to speak of redemption really, is a moot point.
Is this first All Black team of 2009 weak?
Well, no team in the world could do without the talents of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ali Williams, Rodney So’oialo, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Conrad Smith, Jerome Kaino, Richard Kahui and Brendan Leonard – and not be weaker for it. Seven of the starting XV in the All Blacks last test match (against England) are unavailable for this match.
But they still have all first choice props and hookers, one of their first choice locks, two first choice scrum halves, and their number one inside centre and fullback.
The midfield combination of Ma’a Nonu and Isaia Toeava, two 100kg dreadnoughts, could well destroy the French.
Still, question marks abound over an inexperienced loose forward trio, as well as have three uncapped forwards on the bench. Irrespective of this, these men are all in form, with Adam Thompson (open side) and Liam Messam (number eight) statistically two of the standout performers of the Super 14.
The silver lining is that this exposes more players to the rigours of test football.
France has reason to be confident, to a point.
They have been enterprising under the stewardship of Marc Lievremont, but have struggled to maintain consistency in their last two years having not won more than two straight matches since the World Cup.
In the last two Six Nations, they have shown flashes of brilliance, but have played second fiddle to Wales and Ireland (the respective Grand Slammers). Furthermore, against England, their oldest foes apart from the All Blacks; and the traditional barometer of Northern Hemisphere supremacy, they sit on a three match losing streak.
Even their clubs did not stomp around Europe with their usual authority this year, with only Toulouse making the Heineken Cup quarter finals this year, and Perpignan breaking Stade Toulousain, Stade Francais and Biarritz Olympique’s 15 year stranglehold on the Top 14 title.
Still, it is as close to a full strength team that any Northern Hemisphere nation has sent to the South in many years, and easily strong enough to cause what would still be considered an upset.
Plenty will rest on the shoulders of their key players, such as Sylvain Maconnet, Damien Traille, Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans. With the team having only 346 test caps, these four players account for 224 of the team’s international appearances.
Fragile perhaps, but there is no such thing as a weak All Black team. If this was a full strength Ireland maybe.
But New Zealand will win by 10.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina (c), 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Isaia Toeava, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Cory Jane, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Adam Thomson, 6 Kieran Read, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock. Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 John Afoa, 18 Bryn Evans, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Luke McAlister, 22 Lelia Masaga.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Cedric Heymans, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Damien Traille, 11 Vincent Clerc, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Julien Dupuy, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Romain Millo-Chluski, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 Sylvain Marconnet, 2 William Servat, 1 Fabien Barcella. Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Nicolas Mas, 18 Thomas Domingo, 19 Sebastien Chabal, 20 Remy Martin, 21 Julien Puricelli, 22 Dimitri Yachvili, 23 Yannick Jauzion, 24 Alexis Palisson (two to be omitted).