Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: French unable to back up fearsome reputation


France, forever touted as an All Black nemesis, are nothing of the sort. Their record against New Zealand, particularly in the professional age, is fairly dire. They have managed just four wins and a draw in 22 encounters - hardly impressive. In all 54 tests against the All Blacks, they have won just 11.

And yet they are talked about in such revered tones with all the chatter this week focusing on how they will be more dangerous than they were in June - because the French at home are fiendishly good.

The numbers don't back that up. France haven't beaten the All Blacks in France since 2000. They haven't beaten them in Paris for 40 years. What the numbers do show is that the All Blacks are in fact lethal in France.

When they were last here in 2009, they gave their best performance in an age with a 39-12 thumping in Marseilles. It was a game where the All Blacks, after a horrid year, finally played the way they wanted.

On a balmy night, they found their rhythm. They were intense and polished - the French air seemingly doing them a power of good.

It was the same in 2006 when they destroyed France in Lyon 47-3. That was a royal pounding - the game when every pundit, even the acerbic English ones, duly anointed the All Blacks as World Cup winners elect. The All Blacks were brilliant as they had been two years earlier in Paris when they posted an equally impressive 45-6 thrashing. Maybe the All Blacks are right, that the French do find another gear when they play at home, but the All Blacks obviously find at least two. Sometimes more.

The perception that the French draw something extra out of themselves when they play the All Blacks isn't strictly true. What's happened is that two games, where they have done exactly that, have tainted the picture.

It's not like any New Zealanders can easily forget what happened at the World Cup in 1999. Even less likely they will forget 2007.

But if the French have consistently found their A-game when they have played the All Blacks, it's gone unnoticed.

The real story here is that the French bring something extra out in the All Blacks. The game in 2004 was significant beyond the emphatic result. It was the game that set their style blueprint for the next few years. It was the game that vindicated their decision to move Daniel Carter to first-five and also their shift to a player-led leadership model.

Arguably, although some may say this is plain wrong, the French brought the best out of the All Blacks in the 2011 World Cup final - at least they did in one critical aspect - character. Would the All Blacks have found the resolve they needed to have dug in and shut the game out against any opponent other than France?

It was ugly and it was not how they wanted to play - but the All Blacks responded with courage and belief in the final quarter in a way they perhaps might not have had they been playing England or Australia.

- NZ Herald

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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