Sunday 21 January 2018

French menace keeping Kiwis awake at night

Familiar foreboding feeling rises for hosts, writes Eddie Butler

With the same certainty that greets the rising of the sun over the Pacific horizon every morning, New Zealanders are waking up and reaching for the antacid. They have that old familiar pain in their gut: how are we going to foul it up this time?

Australia -- recently voted by readers of the New Zealand Herald as the nation they would least like to see raise the Webb Ellis Cup if/when the nagging doubts become vile reality -- have said it all along, that the All Blacks will hit a frightening peak, the only trouble for Kiwis being that it will be somewhere between World Cups. Come the tournament, come the post-peak slippery slope.

One cue last weekend came with Australia's victory over New Zealand in the final of the Tri Nations. The All Blacks coach, Graham Henry, said it was a strange one, a not altogether surprising defeat for his A-team in Brisbane after defeat for the B-team in South Africa in the previous round. It would serve to crush any trace of complacency, he tried to offer reassuringly, and should not trigger panic. Everybody else groaned and reached for the indigestion relief.

Compare that with the Wallabies. Coach Robbie Deans left his maverick star performer Matt Giteau out of the World Cup squad of 30. You sense that, again, Australia have the better sense of timing. It's not as if Deans can't handle bad boys -- James O'Connor, Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper have all tested the team's code of conduct -- but he has taken a firm line on whose decisions count on the field. Giteau misses out, while Deans' clutch of irreverent, fearless three-quarters are primed to play.

Even so, it cannot go pear-shaped again for New Zealand, can it? Not with all the advantages of home. We shall have to wait and see.

Perhaps September will paint a glossy picture of recovery, even in the Pool A game against France on September 24. The All Blacks should win, for France may be wary of making this the one that matters.

According to French thinking, the pool game may not be the last time they meet in Auckland. The All Blacks can chart their way to the final there via a quarter-final against either Scotland or Argentina -- or, England -- and a semi against South Africa (or, goodness me, Wales. Or, surely not, Ireland).

And France could, if anyone dared look beyond the pool stages, play England (or Scotland or Argentina) in the quarter, and Australia in the semi.

To muse on such things is to ignore the perils of injury and the incomprehensible loss of form that can strike even the most meticulous planner. Declan Kidney, for example, must be wondering how his Ireland have gone from dark horses in March to the abject also-rans of August.

I sense the rumblings of disagreement with regard not so much to Ireland as to the side that France would beat in the last eight, England. When it comes to the World Cup, it is now a given that England always have the measure of the French. It happened in 1991, and again in 2003. Nobody remembers the bronze final of 1995, because it was a scrap for the scraps.

The view in France is that Marc Lievremont has not made a good fist of coaching the national team for the past four years. The Six Nations Grand Slam of 2010 was undistinguished, and since then he has tinkered and meddled and plonked blame squarely on his players when things regularly have gone wrong.

And yet, the squad he has finally selected looks full of menace and enterprise, loaded with power and skill. It is said that they do not have a No 7, now essential to the liberated game, but Thierry Dusautoir, for all that he wears six, does a pretty good impression of a world-class 'loosie', to borrow from the New Zealand glossary.

Again, it seems to be in the timing. France seem ready at the right time. Morgan Parra at scrumhalf sums them up with a sort of strutting insolence that should be unattractive, but is instead so very deliciously French.

On that same count -- the timing, not the strutting insolence, that is -- everybody in general, and England in particular, should fear Scotland. They have no stars, although Richie Gray is the feral talisman that makes their case more than a little interesting. They have no discipline problems (as far as we know) but they lack strength in depth.

Their self-belief is born of playing well at Twickenham in the Six Nations, and warm-up victories over Ireland and Italy. They meet England in their final pool game, and for those who like a little anxiety in their diet this should be a feast of worry.

And on the subject of fretfulness, there is always Wales. It is entirely within the bounds of possibility that they will be scintillating in victory in Pool D over South Africa, the defending champions, only to lose to Samoa and Fiji. That would let South Africa off the hook and allow the Springboks to be their normal World Cup selves: direct and unsubtle and never to be written off.

To look to Wales for surprise is traditional and at this World Cup perhaps a little unfair, but they remain strong candidates to go one way or the other with not a foot set on any middle ground. Devotion to defensive duty has been admirable and Sam Warburton promises to be one of the players of the tournament. His team's fitness levels touch giddy heights. But can they ever be conditioned to be conventional?

Wales fret and New Zealand turn uncomfortably in their beds, no dreams allowed. Only the twists and turns of action count from now on.


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