Twenty-five of the 50 greatest players in Rugby World Cup history have been revealed over the past five days, now it’s time to get into the second half.
Respect. The All Blacks didn’t show it in Dunedin, claim the French, as an irked Graham Henry almost fell over himself trying to redress the balance.
Having named a full-strength side to face France in their season-ending rugby Test at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on Saturday, there was no way All Blacks coach Henry was handing their hosts any more ammunition.
Excellent team, France. Check. Only lost one of their nine Tests here (including victory over the All Blacks in 2000). Check. We’re jaded after a punishing four Tests in as many weeks. Check. The New Zealand rugby public need to lower their expectations. Check.
Only once did Henry bite, at France hooker William Servat’s assertion from their training base outside Paris that the All Blacks showed a lack of respect before they lost 27-22 to the French in Dunedin in June.
“When we were in New Zealand they put their headphones on and were smiling a bit. I’m not sure they were smiling after playing against us,” Servat was quoted as saying.
“With regards to that, it will really set the tempo for the match.”
Henry was to the point in his response.
“Rubbish. I’m used to comments like that so I just ignore them. There’s no facts in that, we always take every game that we play seriously. We prepared well, they were better than us on the day.
“They’re a very good side, the French. We respect them. With the South Africans, they’re a side who think they can win every time they play against the All Blacks.”
In terms of preparation, it’s been two extremes.
Dave Gallaher Trophy holders France are only just into their Test season with wins over the Springboks and Samoa behind them.
Henry admitted the consecutive tour Test wins against Australia in Tokyo, Wales in Cardiff, Italy in Milan and England in London had taxed his side and this week was all about recovery before their sharp final Thursday session.
While he’d like his side to “add the icing”, in terms of finishing with a flourish and boosting their tally of three tries from their three most recent Tests, he conceded any win would be a triumph.
“You can see from the other southern hemisphere countries touring Europe that it’s not easy. Despite what other people think, it’s a very difficult tour.
“Over the last six years we’ve done the European tour four times with two Grand Slams, and we’re very proud of our record here. Other sides have tried to emulate that and haven’t done so and it just shows you it’s not easy.
“We’re proud of what we’ve achieved this tour, we’d like to add a bit of finish to what we’re doing.”
He said victory was the difference between rating the All Blacks’ Test season average and okay, after their three defeats to the Springboks.
After a messy year with injured players coming and going throughout, there was finally some continuity as the Test season drew to a close, Henry said.
The team were the strongest he could pick, in the injury-enforced absences of Keven Mealamu, Ali Williams and Richard Kahui.
All 34 players were available for selection, and with prop Neemia Tialata, flanker Jerome Kaino and winger Cory Jane returning, the starting 15 boasted an average of more than 40 tests apiece.
French coach Marc Lievremont’s side are also a seasoned unit, with 11 of the players who started in Dunedin in their run-on 15.