French forwards facing All Blacks battle
Updated: September 21, 2011, 23:57
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Just how well France's depleted pack copes against New Zealand's vaunted forwards in the scrum will go a long way to deciding the result of Saturday's World Cup match.
The French pack has been among the best in the past two years, with its settled front five asserting its authority with impressive wins against South Africa and the All Blacks, and powering the team to a Six Nations Grand Slam title in 2010.
But coach Marc Lievremont will be without prop Nicolas Mas through injury, and shook up his own pack by leaving other first-choice forwards William Servat (hooker), Imanol Harinordoquy (flanker) and Fabien Barcella (prop) on the bench.
"Everyone will have to be ready on the field,'' said Barcella, who played in France's 27-22 win in Dunedin two years ago. "They have one the best packs in the world, if not the best.
"I hope it's a positive fear. The training has been of a high quality this week,'' he added. "We're less relaxed, there are less smiles, the faces are more drawn. We know we're up against something much harder now.''
Props Luc Ducalcon and Jean-Baptiste Poux and hooker Dimitri Szarzewski have the crucial role of withstanding New Zealand at the put-in.
"They generate a very strong impact in the scrum, and their collective cohesion is impressive,'' Barcella said. "We can't afford to suffer in the impact, because otherwise it's practically impossible to push them back.''
Poux, who wins his 33rd cap on Saturday, urged the backs to help ease the pressure a little.
"We have to try and keep the ball when we have it, and be strong in defense,'' he said. "We've analyzed their performances. We've got some instructions how to stop their pack early on, then we will see how things evolve.''
France beat New Zealand at the last World Cup, rallying from a halftime deficit to win 20-18, with flanker Thierry Dusautoir - who captains France on Saturday - inspiring his teammates with some ferocious tackling.
The French also ran the All Blacks close in Wellington following their win in Dunedin, losing only 14-10.
But there have also been some heavy defeats to temper those moments of joy, with the All Blacks thrashing France 45-6, 47-3, 42-11, and 61-10 since 2004. The most recent match ended with another heavy All Blacks victory: 39-12 in Marseille.
"The All Blacks dominated us in the scrum,'' Barcella said, reflecting on those defeats. "You have to worry about them on the blindside, they stole the ball off our put-in in Marseille and scored a try off the back of it.''
New Zealand's strength is, according to Barcella, nurtured from identical training sessions at every age level.
"Each prop has similar positional sense from junior (level) through to seniors,'' he said. "They have a specific scrum coach who goes from club to club doing that and they benefit from that.''
France's pack looked way short its dominant best against Japan and Canada, and a huge improvement is required to stop the All Blacks getting the ball out to the backs, who are red-hot after scoring 13 tries against the Japanese.
"We know it will be hard, we're not totally reassured with what we've done so far,'' Barcella said. "We haven't put in a proper performance against a major team, and this is more than a major team because it's the best team in the world.''
Much has been made of Lievremont's team selection against the All Blacks, with scrumhalf Morgan Parra also being asked to play in an unaccustomed role at flyhalf at the expense of regular flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc.
That prompted sections of the local media to lambast Lievremont for picking an apparently weakened side, with the alleged intention of finishing second in Pool A to facilitate a more favorable path through the knockout rounds.
"It's like if our media said '(Andrew) Hore and (Keven) Mealamu aren't playing, it's their 'C' team,''' Servat said. "The French team selection is causing debate. A lot of people are talking about it here, (but) it's also a form of extra advertising for the match.''
Barcella also quashed rumors of the French easing up.
"I was surprised to see the media talking about a 'B' team, they have to sell papers I suppose,'' he said. "In any case, the New Zealand team are very respectful and these kind of comments don't come from them.''
New Zealand's players are too smart to get drawn into that debate - plus they have their own form to worry about.
"The All Blacks players know full well that the players in front of them will be sweating for the (France) jersey,'' Servat said. "It would be a lack of respect on their part to think it's a 'B' team and to play (against us) at 80 percent.''
Widely considered to be one of the best hookers in the game, Servat is disappointed to be a reserve.
"It's always a unique and special match to play against them, and those who aren't playing in it are always frustrated,'' he said. "I really wanted to start the match.''