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Friday, December 16, 2005


World Cup 2007: France will beat New Zealand

Source: The Observer
By: Eddie Butler

You don't have to look far from home to find the favourites for the Rugby World Cup in 2007. And they are not the All Blacks, says former Welsh Test back-rower Eddie Butler.

HERE we are, just over the mid-point hump between the Rugby World Cup in Australia and the next one, to be held in France in 2007. Hump is the word, that being what the Australians have got with Eddie Jones. The coach who took them, against the odds, to the final in Sydney has gone, following a long campaign against him, prompted by a recent record that revealed just one win in the Wallabies' last 10 games.

For years, Jones managed without a front row of true Test quality. He had Bill Young, but he never had a complete unit that could provide the security of possession and ballast that might have made his job easier. Now everybody knows Australia are there for the taking at the scrum.

It is not a pretty place to be, but it does seem slightly harsh to sack the coach when the real problem seems to be beyond his reach. Perhaps he hasn't tried hard enough to poach a few large islanders. Or perhaps he was resigned to the All Blacks pinching Tongan-born Saimone Taumoepeau first.

New Zealand are clearly the No. 1 rugby-playing country. Drawing on the best players from five Pacific Islands - their own North and South islands, plus Tonga, Fiji and Samoa - they have assembled a formidable squad, certainly the richest and deepest pool of talent the game has ever known.

Since there is no reason to suppose their recruiting policies can be tamed by the IRB in time for the next World Cup, it would appear they will remain red-hot favourites to win the trophy that has eluded them since 1987. (And to our Kiwi readers who claim that other countries poach as vigorously as the All Blacks, how can it be that Sitiveni Sivivatu and Sione Lauaki can one year play for the combined Pacific Islands against New Zealand, and the next be playing for the ABs? That's not missionary work but piracy.)

Even on their recent tour, and even as they were purring towards their second grand slam over Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland, there were signs that each game, Ireland excepted, was becoming progressively harder for the All Blacks. Maybe that was the nature of the fixture list, or a result of experimenting with selection and overuse of the replacements' bench at Murrayfield, but, if you compare how the All Blacks began their international year (discounting a run-out against Fiji) and how they ended it, it seems clear they have been hauled in slightly by the chasing pack.

Defence coaches will work out how to pull open the curtain of dummy runners New Zealand manoeuvre in front of their passers. Referees and the law-makers will be invited at every opportunity to clarify what the All Blacks do at the post-tackle situation. Analysts will point out how much illegal (unpenalised) wheeling the All Blacks impart on the scrum. Two years of intense scrutiny lie ahead.

Is it an advantage to have faced New Zealand and been bowled over by them, and have two years to plot revenge? Or is it better to be France? They were the very first high-profile victims of Graham Henry's All Blacks, but that was last year in Paris. Since then, France have gone serenely about the business of preparing themselves to host the next World Cup.

If any team can benefit from having the game's biggest tournament on home soil, it is France. And if any team can take on New Zealand in a passing game, it must be France. English-speaking teams have all crept up in modern times into a flat-back formation. Only France remain faithful to a steep-angled alignment. Dave Ellis of England may have organised their defence into a tightly disciplined system, but in attack France remain utterly French, with Frederic Michalak the slightly enigmatic chef de gare and Yannick Jauzion pure, level-headed class in the centre. Between the midfield and front row, France have a back row and halfback maturing in the vat, with Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Yannick Nyanga on track to be very tasty. And talking of maturity, if little Thomas Castaignede carries on playing the way he is, he could still light up a World Cup. He sees more in the blink of an eye than the England three-quarter line see in a month of unblinking concentration on their fourth volume of "How to Create Space".

By 2007, I think France will have moved ahead of New Zealand. And whenever France make a move, England should not be far behind. In the professional age, these are the two that have been the European leaders in research and development. They, in turn, have hauled the Celts forward.

But there are still some pretty dismal rumours about discontent in Andy Robinson's camp. This is not about the tug between club and country; this is about how England want to play. It seems the politics may disguise the suspicion among the players that their current coaches will not be able to train them towards a brighter future. That is serious. And just as this may not be the best time for New Zealand to hit a peak, so it is not the moment for England to hit rock bottom. It seems they have left themselves with too much to do before the World Cup. Australia have sacked Jones, but have a track record of being able to react quickly to crisis. England's crises tend to linger. Two years is not long for a country that has allowed its club-country row to fester as long. And there is a long way for England to go - from monstrous up front to all-round creative.

It would appear then, at this mid-point between World Cups, that neither of the sides that went to the last final can look much beyond a quarter-final. Which does open up a window for somebody else. For Wales, perhaps, although the autumn series saw them severely stretched when it came to digging into the reserves. But at least they continued to play, and Shane Williams emerged after a series of traffic accidents to show against Australia what instinct and balance can still achieve.

If the challenge of England and Australia may fade, then South Africa's will grow. The Springboks have been through a strange old period, but theirs is a peculiar old country. Or young country. The point is that after such upheavals in their rugby politics and among their players and coaches, change is no longer a word that frightens them.

They have clung to just one tenet from the bad old days - aggression. But that is no bad thing. And Jake White has added an awareness that means they spring from defence to counterattack with even sharper reflexes than France or New Zealand. If White can just find himself an outside-half of the quality of Dan Carter … it's a hell of an if.

Given the place of Sven in England's sporting affections and headlines, and the importance attached to the role of Duncan Fletcher, it should come as no surprise that the rugby coach is now apparently more important than the players. Think of Clive Woodward: it was all his fault. We are only now finding it just about palatable to say the Lions were simply beaten by a better All Blacks team. Think of Eddie Jones.

But the coach is important, because he has to keep his team ahead of the rest, or up with the leaders. We used to say that rugby, despite appearances, was simple - it's not. It's a very difficult game, not necessarily to play but to manage.

What will determine who will emerge as the front-runner over the next two years is not the brawn on the field - not even an Australian tighthead - but the brains off it. That, plus the prospect that the axe may not be satisfied with taking out just Eddie Jones.

Rugga World Service:

Statistics for France vs New Zealand

Games played: 41, 6.86%
Games won by France: 10, 24.39%
Games won by New Zealand: 30, 73.17%
Games drawn: 1, 2.44%
Most wins in a row for France: 3
Most losses in a row for France: 8

Largest points for France: 43, 43 - 31
Largest points against France: 54, 54 - 7
Largest winning margin for France: 14, 8 - 22
Largest losing margin for France: 47, 54 - 7

Total points for: 544
Total points against: 931

Average points for per game: 13.27
Average points against per game: 22.71
Average points difference: -9.44
you have to love how they right us off.

i love it
It is quite remarkable how the Poms and their associated lot, even including SA, continue to publish such rubbish as NZ poaching Pacific Islands players. I think that this is their way to deflect the fact that they have been beaten by a better team, but won't face up to the facts involved.

They lost these games because they simply weren't good enough to counter the NZ rugby skills, attitide, and coaching. I wonder if these people can nominate even ONE Pacific Islands player that the NZRU have "poached " from the Islands. I don't know of anyone myself.

One only has to visit the Islands to realize that the quality of the rugby played up there is about standard interclub "B" grade in NZ.

Howzit Patrick

Thanks for joining us.

If this git thinks there was a catch-up from the NH teams and NZ in this Grand Slam he must have been watching SA's attempt last year and not the same matches I was.


He doesn't even mention the two matches of the season. The Newlands test match and the Dunedin one.

Didn't he see how damned agonisingly close those were compared to the runaways the Kiwis had on their EOYT. He's deluded if he thinks there was any positiovity the NH teams can take home from the NZ EOYT. I think that those two test matches, measured against the quality SA and NZ dished up in the 3N, shows rather that there is a lengthening of the gapo between SH and NH teams, excepting the weird psychological gap SA has for performance in the NH.

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