By Julien Pretot
There’s no shortage of historical reference points to show why France’s quarter-final showdown with defending champions New Zealand will be anything but an enthralling and intriguing battle.
Les Bleus enter Saturday’s clash at the Millennium Stadium (10pm) on the back of a dismal 24-9 defeat against Ireland in their final pool game and face an All Blacks side who breezed through the group phase on cruise-control.
The French, however, know more than most about what it takes to upset the form book.
Their record of 42 defeats in 55 Tests against New Zealand certainly paints a sorry picture, but momentous victories in the 2007 quarter-finals and the 1999 semis tells a different story entirely, with the mighty All Blacks choking in the face of their opponents’ renowned Gallic flair.
“It’s the kind of game you dream of when you’re a kid,” head coach Philippe Saint-Andre enthused, adding that his side must play the French way if they are to have any chance of another famous upset.
Serge Blanco, the mercurial fullback who led France to the 1987 final – which they lost to New Zealand – made the point even more succinctly.
“We can do it because we’re French,” he told reporters.
France flanker Yannick Nyanga, who was also a member of the 2007 squad, is anxious for a repeat.
“You need a bit of anger and a bit of fear in any rugby match; that’s how you surpass yourself. They (New Zealand) are the best team in the world. If we played them 10 times we’d lose nine. But there’s always this one time.”
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and is preparing his side to cover all the angles despite the All Blacks having won all of the last eight meetings between the teams.
“France have always had great athletes. Their game was built around flair in the backs and real physicality up front,” Hansen told reporters.
“I know that they’re trying to recapture that flair, which is there, you can see it. We’ll be expecting them to come out with flair and physicality on Saturday.”
Hansen has picked an experienced side, featuring four men to have been named World Player of the Year in Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read.
McCaw was rested from the champions’ final pool game against Tonga because of a sore hip but returns at openside flanker to win his 146th cap.
France, meanwhile, welcome back scrumhalf Morgan Parra among three changes from the team beaten by Ireland.
Parra, who last started in the 38-11 win against Romania, replaces Sebastien Tillous-Borde to partner flyhalf Frederic Michalak, while centre Mathieu Bastareaud makes way for Alexandre Dumoulin as coach Saint-Andre looks for more speed in midfield.
The other change is in the back row, where Bernard Le Roux comes in for Damien Chouly.
New Zealand: 1-Wyatt Crockett, 2-Dane Coles, 3-Owen Franks, 4-Brodie Retallick, 5-Sam Whitelock, 6-Jerome Kaino, 7-Richie McCaw (captain), 8-Kieran Read; 9-Aaron Smith, 10-Dan Carter, 11-Julian Savea, 12-Ma’a Nonu, 13-Conrad Smith, 14-Nehe Milner-Skudder, 15-Ben Smith
Replacements: 16-Keven Mealamu, 17-Joe Moody, 18-Charlie Faumuina, 19-Victor Vito, 20-Sam Cane, 21-Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22-Beauden Barrett, 23-Sonny Bill Williams
France: 1-Eddy Ben Arous, 2-Guilhem Guirado, 3-Rabah Slimani, 4- Pascal Pape, 5-Yoann Maestri, 6-Thierry Dusautoir (captain), 7- Bernard Le Roux, 8-Louis Picamoles; 9-Morgan Parra, 10-Frederic Michalak, 11-Brice Dulin, 12-Wesley Fofana, 13-Alexandre Dumoulin, 14-Noa Nakaitaci, 15-Scott Spedding.
Replacements: 16-Dimitri Szarzewski, 17-Vincent Debaty, 18-Nicolas Mas, 19-Damien Chouly, 20-Yannick Nyanga, 21-Rory Kockott, 22-Remi Tales, 23-Mathieu Bastareaud (Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by David Goodman)