Brian Ashton: If All Blacks can keep assumption at bay Les Bleus haven't got a hope
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 22 October 2011
So history is about to be re-enacted at Eden Park.
Twenty-four years ago in the inaugural World Cup final, an outstanding team of men in black were comfortable victors over France – by common consent, David Kirk's ground-breaking side set new standards in international rugby – and many expect tomorrow's repeat showpiece on the same patch of turf to be equally conclusive. Certainly, the evidence from both the group phase and the knock-out stage suggests New Zealand should have little to fear come kick-off time. Not that they will be thinking in those terms. They need no counsel from anyone outside their tight-knit organisation, but I would advise them to dismiss completely all that has happened prior to this game.
This has to be the right approach because it is crucial to guard against assumption. I suspect their main focus has been on themselves, because they have bought fully into the "performance ensures results" philosophy. They set such very high standards in the semi-final and while I accept this next match is a different animal, both from the point of view of the opposition and the scale of the occasion, I am certain they will set out to improve tomorrow. If that turns out to be the case, whatever the French throw at them will be to no avail.
As an aside to the final, the fall-out from the controversial semi-final between France and Wales continues to circulate following Warren Gatland's announcement at a press conference that as a direct consequence of losing Adam Jones to injury and Sam Warburton to a sending-off, he and his staff considered cheating as a means of forcing uncontested scrums on the game. Many commentators suggested there may have been some previous history at club level in this regard and the International Rugby Board has taken it upon itself to look closely at the matter. It will be interesting to see how this pans out, for I know coaches whose thought processes would have been very similar to Gatland's. Me? I have no desire to claim the moral high ground but I would never consider going down such a route, even though I am well aware that in modern-day society, this might be seen as a sign of weakness.
Incidentally, Wales were as heroic in defeat last weekend as the All Blacks were in victory. Had they been more accurate in the goal-kicking department, and had Stephen Jones bothered to take a pot-shot at goal during a final attack, maybe the two sets of heroes would be facing each other tomorrow.
Is anything clear about Les Bleus as we head towards the climax of the competition? To my mind, there are two things. Firstly, they will have to re-evaluate their kicking-game approach in the light of last week's dreadful effort – not only in terms of the frequency of the kicking, but also in terms of accuracy. If they give as much free ball away as they did against Wales, the likes of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane will crucify them. From the decision-making perspective, Maxime Médard and Morgan Parra still seem slightly uncomfortable in their "new" positions of full-back and outside-half: certainly, both struggled, technically and tactically, against the Welsh. The former, presumably operating under orders, rarely contemplated a counter-attack even when his 14-man opponents kicked poorly to him. Parra? On three occasions, he immediately kicked back turnover ball from the tackle area – precisely the kind of possession French teams of the past have prayed for and thrived on.
Secondly – and this is something I mentioned last week – the French must maintain intelligent flexibility in their defence. At 9-8 up and with a significant amount of time left on the clock, they allowed Wales countless opportunities to retain possession: an interesting choice in the circumstances, if one fully validated by the final score. In the closing period of the game, France committed only the initial tackler to the rucks and made no effort to steal the ball. Fourteen men stayed on their feet, half a metre onside, with the single aim of preventing the referee awarding a kickable penalty to the opposition. While this approach may have worked for them then, it will not be smart enough to keep out the All Blacks.
New Zealand's forwards, so all-consumingly impressive against the Wallabies, will have to play at least as well again, for the French are no mugs in this area. While it may appear invidious to single out individuals for special attention, I would like to comment on two. Brad Thorn, bidding his farewell to the silver-ferned jersey tomorrow, has long been a favourite player of mine. A unique lock forward who has shuffled back and forth between the two rugby codes, he has won Grand Final titles with the Brisbane Broncos and represented the Kangaroos, the Australian national league side – arguably the best team in the world in either code. Hewn from granite, he always looks most animated when the going is at its toughest and never fails to make a full contribution in the dark areas of the game. He is also technically accomplished, as befits a former rugby league man, and his physical engine never switches off.
The other is Richie McCaw, who last week reaffirmed his status as the world's number one No 7. The much talked-about David Pocock gave as good as he got in the early skirmishes, but as the game unfolded I felt McCaw had a significant advantage in one crucial area: the mental side of the game. His ability to stay fully focused on the task in hand despite the distractions of the moment and of the occasion marked him as a man apart – especially when Pocock resorted under pressure to questioning refereeing decisions in the second half. McCaw would have known then that the personal battle had been won.
Speaking as an inhabitant of the northern hemisphere, I'm looking hard to see some light at the end of the tunnel for the French. I just hope they approach the game in a positive manner. They have some outstanding players on their teamsheet and the beauty of their best performances is their capacity to suddenly switch from one way of playing to another, to keep the opposition guessing as to what might happen next. Their game has not had this dimension in the tournament to date, so it has to be now or never.
Even if they produce it, I believe the All Blacks will improve on the tempo and accuracy of execution they showed against the Wallabies – that they will be ruthless and play with great clarity. If this happens, they will be too good.
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