New Zealand meets France in a highly-anticipated Pool A clash that will almost certainly determine the order of qualification in the pool. The hosts looked ominously slick against a weak Japanese team last week, while impressing in parts against Tonga, and arrive at Eden Park as solid favourites against an inconsistent French team that nonetheless have a history of embarrassing the All Blacks in World Cup competition. France have developed a habit of finishing strongly after slow starts against the weaker teams of Pool A; it remains to be seen whether this is due to superior fitness of professional players alone or if Les Blues can also outlast and punish the elite of world rugby.
French coach Marc Lievremont has been criticised mid-week for naming a team with a slightly experimental look to it; criticism that appeared to anger both the manager and his team. Usual scrum-half Morgan Parra starts at ten, however, alongside halves partner Dimitri Yachvili in a backline that otherwise springs no surprises. The pack welcomes back experienced campaigner Lionel Nallet in the second row, one of three changes from their last game. Most notably, regular captain Thierry Dusautoir also returns after missing the Canadian game entirely to face the team he out-tacked in 2007, while promising young No.8 Louis Picamoles retains his spot ahead of Imanol Harinordoquy after impressing against the Canucks.
New Zealand have named what appears to be their top side for the host’s first major test of the tournament. Richie McCaw returns for a record 100th test in the black jersey to lead his team from the back row missing only the presence of Kieran Read to injury. Sam Whitelock replaces Ali Williams in the second row, while Kevin Mealamu has been given the chance to re-establish himself at hooker. Israel Dagg takes the fullback spot from the ageing Mils Muliaina, while Richard Kahui starts again on the left wing. The rest of the backline pick itself, although Piri Weepu starts ahead of Jimmy Cowan at scrumhalf. The mercurial talent of Sonny Bill Williams threatens from the bench but will certainly be seen at some point in the second half.
Players to watch:
Look for Ma’a Nonu to target a French halves combination much lighter than defences he has destroyed in the past. Nonu missed the quarterfinal in 2007 but has always threatened against France when picked.
Thierry Dusautoir made more tackles than the entire New Zealand team in 2007 in the defining moment of his international career. The French captain must show the same levels of dedication for Les Blues to once again haunt the hosts in a World Cup.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Richard Kahui, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Piri Weepu, 1 Tony Woodcock, 2 Keven Mealamu, 3 Owen Franks, 4 Brad Thorn, 5 Sam Whitelock, 6 Jerome Kaino, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 8 Adam Thomson.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Anthony Boric, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.
France: 15 Damien Traille, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Pascale Papé, 4 Lionel Nallet, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 William Servat, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Imanol Harinordoquy, 20 Francois Trinh-Duc, 21 Fabrice Estebanez, 22 Cédric Heymans.