Rugby: Nations prepare for battleground

By Gregor Paul

France's Sebastien Chabal. Photo / Getty Images
France's Sebastien Chabal. Photo / Getty Images

We all know what the All Blacks have to achieve on their European tour. But what about their opponents - what are the key objectives of Wales, Italy, England and France in the forthcoming tests?

Wales

There was a time when Wales would have settled for being a good side; a competitive side who earned the respect of the big boys.

That's not enough for them these days. Now, they want to be one of the big boys - a team that is capable of sustained victories against the very best.

In 2005, even though they had won the Grand Slam earlier in the year, there was a sense of them lacking conviction.

They were talking about beating the All Blacks yet there was a sense of them secretly believing that getting close would be enough; that the nation would be proud if they played well, gave it all they had and stayed within 10 points.

The difference in their attitude last year was marked. They refused to back down after the haka.

This red line stood firm across the turf, captain Ryan Jones later explaining it was their patch and they had to let the All Blacks know that.

For the first 40 minutes Wales had belief. They played as if they held no fear of the All Blacks.

That faded in the run-in when the All Blacks found their rhythm and form. The final score was 29-9 and the disappointment within the home team was obvious.

They had failed to keep the pressure on. The pack couldn't handle the heat when the All Blacks started firing in the final quarter.

No one was proud of that. Unlike in 2005, the Welsh of 2008 were there for keeps.

That's been the key benefit of having Warren Gatland as coach. The hard-nosed Waikato man is not about compromise.

He has persuaded his players that the Grand Slam they achieved in 2008 was only a starting point.

The achievement will effectively count for nothing if they can't back it up with victories against New Zealand and South Africa.

And that is the one and only goal for Wales when they meet the All Blacks in Cardiff next week. The result will be everything.

They haven't beaten the All Blacks for 56 years. Coming close and playing enterprising football won't cut it with Gatland.

He's after dog fighters; men with the mental strength to take the All Blacks on physically and believe in themselves; to believe in the game plan.

Italy

Italy were pleasantly surprised by how well they performed when they met the All Blacks in June this year.

For long periods, they frustrated the All Blacks with their smothering defence. They lost 27-15 in the end and never looked like winning but that will do for them.

Avoiding the bash is what it's about for Italy and that is what it will be about again in Milan. The San Siro - all 80,000 seats will be filled on November 7 and the Italians know they can't afford to be humiliated.

This is a golden opportunity to grow the popularity of rugby in a football-mad country.

Damage limitation will be high on the Italians' agenda and it's a game plan that works well for them. Their pack has some starch. As they showed in June, they are proficient at the set-piece and their ball retention is top drawer.

They will be able to compete with the All Blacks in winning the ball. They will hold up well at the collision points and typically, they will flop over the ball on the ground to slow things down. That will see them concede penalties but it will also see them frustrate the All Blacks by preventing them from building momentum.

The game plan is likely to be limited. The Italians know they don't have the skills to take the All Blacks on out wide.

Italy's coach is Nick Mallett, the former Springbok supremo, and he will have seen how South Africa put the All Blacks under so much pressure by maintaining their shape, structure and kicking game. The high ball is an effective weapon and the Italians will use it - and try to pin the All Black back three before they can find space.

It's a negative strategy but it could be effective in achieving the goal of keeping the score respectable.

England

In the early months of Martin Johnson's tenure, England were poor. They were toasted by the All Blacks at Twickenham and hammered by the Springboks.

That was bad. Worse was their obvious lack of direction. They were confused about how they were trying to play.

When Johnson (pictured), the World Cup winning captain of 2003 was appointed coach in 2008, there was an assumption made that he would build a side out of the very mould he himself had been poured.

England, under Johnson, would be all about the set-piece. They would be pragmatic. They would kick for territory. Then, roll the maul off the lineout, pick and drive and grind opponents down.

So much for assumptions. England tried to play with the ball. Their set-piece was flaky, their forwards were not cast in Johnson's shadow and their discipline was awful.

The key goal for them now is to establish a style, a culture and a clear vision of how they want to play.

Johnson will have seen how the South Africans troubled the All Blacks with a structured, low-risk game.

He will have seen how vulnerable the All Black pack was to relentless composure and efficiency in the set-piece and contact areas. And he will have seen how the All Black back three were exposed at times to the high ball and victims of their indecision on when to counter attack.

The 32-man Elite Player Squad chosen for the November tests is full of honest club men who will do the basics well and give their all. The EPS also includes one J. Wilkinson, who is back in form, injury free and ready to give England the direction they have lacked.

With Wilkinson, England will have patterns and focus. They won't get carried away; they won't try to take the All Blacks on out wide or believe they have to play with width to earn respect.

The English pack will target the ball, look to keep it and wear the All Blacks down. They will try to pressure the All Blacks into making mistakes and leave Wilkinson to kick the goals. If they play with an obvious understanding of what they are trying to do, put in an 80-minute shift at the coalface and run the All Blacks close, at least show they had them rattled for periods, then the Twickers faithful will go home happy.

France

France have belief they can beat the All Blacks. Goodness knows they have done it often enough - and have done so as recently as June, when they won 22-27 in Dunedin.

They have never revelled in glorious failure. It's just not their thing.

Their thing is playing with soul - the spirit of their nation.

France, as everyone knows, are uncontainable when they have the right mix. When the forwards are brutal and rampaging and the backs run into space, time the passes and pretty much make it up as they go along.

That side of French rugby has been lost in recent years.

It was buried by former coach Bernard Laporte, who wanted structure and discipline from his team.

It didn't actually bring the success he wanted and the French were never the same team when they were controlled.

New coach Marc Lievremont is trying to strike a better balance. He wants to keep the discipline.

Too often in the past the French let themselves down with random acts of unnecessary violence.

But he's not so keen on boxing the players into a pre-ordained game plan.

There has to be spontaneity; there has to be a licence to cut loose when it is on and use the width; use the space when it has been created.

Getting back in touch with the essence of France is the key aim for Lievremont.

There is an irony to that as French President Sarkozy is trying to modernise the country, to bring it in line with the rest of Europe.

That might work for the economy, but it won't work for the rugby side. Being unquestionably French; dramatically volatile and random is the way they have succeeded. The match on November 28 in Marseille is the game for them to reconnect with their past.

- Herald on Sunday

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