PREVIEW: France v New Zealand

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 06:11

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: New Zealand Prop Nepo Laulala will have something to prove when he lines up against France on Saturday after being told last year that he would never play rugby again.

The 26-year-old tighthead suffered a knee injury in 2016 that not only interrupted his 10-Test international career but almost brought the curtain down on his playing days.

Now the Samoan-born Chiefs front-rower is determined to show he's a better player than he was before his injury.

"It was really tough, I actually didn't really think I'd get back here," he admitted.

"It didn't really help because my doctor told me he didn't think I'd play again.

"I had to get over that. It was a tough road back."

But the desire to silence the doubters was one of the main motivating factors.

"It was a massive injury, I think it was one of worst he [the doctor] has ever seen - that's not really a thing you want to hear from your doctor.

"I wanted to prove that I could make it back; I wanted to prove that doctor wrong; I was really angry after that; after that I never saw him again!"

Laulala will be cheered on at the Stade de France by his All Black international brother Casey, 35, who now plays his club rugby in Paris for Racing 92 after spells at Cardiff Blues and Munster.

"It's always good to see Casey, we hardly see him back home. We've been catching up the past couple of days," said Nepo Laulala.

"He was always there for me, he always texts me, gives me little messages that keep me up. He's helped me through heaps, he's part of my main reason of choosing this pathway, trying to make it big.

"He paved the way for my career, he's been a big part of my career, definitely. He made us believe it's possible to achieve it.

"Growing up in the island [in Samoa], we're very casual there, we don't really do [much], almost too casual!

"He just made us believe we're capable of more than what we think."

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen believes Laulala will bring mobility and athleticism to his pack against the French, who the All Blacks beat, 24-19, a year ago in the same stadium.

"He's another one who's got a bit of understanding about what's needed," said Hansen.

"He's a reasonable athlete - you can only use the word reasonable for props, you can't say they're great athletes in the sense of running around the park.

"They're great athletes when it comes to scrummaging and lifting. He does that part of his game really well."

France coach Guy Noves caused a stir on Thursday when naming a new and young halfback pairing in 20-year-old scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, who will make his first start after just three substitute appearances, and 21-year-old debutant flyhalf Anthony Belleau.

But he also raised a few eyebrows by bringing heavyweight centre Mathieu Bastareaud back into the starting XV for his first cap since the World Cup, when he was part of the team humiliated 13-62 by New Zealand in the quarterfinals.

"The choices have been made based on the potential at our disposition," said Noves, whose side have won only three of eight Tests this year.

"When you have, I think, 18 players injured, you take into account the form and the physical preparation - we didn't have any other options than these."

New Zealand centre Ryan Crotty for one is looking forward to facing Bastareaud again, saying it would be a "tough battle" but "pretty exciting".

"We played against each other at age group level, a good couple of years ago, he was just as big then as he is now!"

Players to watch:

For France: Mathieu Bastareaud returns to the French midfield and he has the power and physicality to trouble the All Blacks if he gets going. No.8 Louis Picamoles is a versatile player up front and he will be the go-to man to get the French over the advantage line. France also have a real talent on the bench in the form of Damian Penaud. It is a shame he is not starting.

For New Zealand: Take your pick! Damian McKenzie was fantastic in the No.15 jersey in the Rugby Championship, while Rieko Ioane is a try-scoring machine on the wing. No.8 and captain Kieran Read always gives his all for his team and keep an eye on No.6 Vaea Fifita, who is an outstanding young talent with a lot of pace and raw power.

Head to head: Anthony Belleau will be making his debut in the No.10 jersey for France and his opposite number is none other than Beauden Barrett. It will be interesting to see if Belleau can give his side direction. Louis Picamoles and Kieran Read are both important players for their respective sides and they offer a lot from the No.8 position. There is also set to be some big collisions in the midfield when Mathieu Bastareaud and Sonny Bill Williams go at each other.

Recent results:
2016: New Zealand won 24-19, Paris
2015: New Zealand won 62-13, Cardiff (World Cup quarterfinal)
2013: New Zealand won 26-19, Paris
2013: New Zealand won 24-9, New Plymouth
2013: New Zealand won 30-0, Christchurch
2013: New Zealand won 23-13, Auckland
2011: New Zealand won 8-7, Auckland (World Cup Final)
2011: New Zealand won 37-17, Auckland (World Cup pool match)
2009: New Zealand won 39-12, Marseille

Prediction: The All Blacks have selected their strongest possible team, while France are missing a number of players through injury. The All Blacks will win by 20 points or more

France: 15 Nans Ducuing, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Mathieu Bastareaud, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Anthony Belleau, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Judicael Cancoriet, 5 Paul Gabrillagues, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Remplacements: 16 Clement Maynadier, 17 Raphael Chaume, 16 Daniel Kotze, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Anthony Jelonch, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 22 Damian Penaud.

New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Thomas Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.

Date: Saturday, November 11
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 20.45 (19.45 GMT; 08.45 NZ Time, Sunday, November 12)
Expected weather: There will be some light rain with a temperature around 8°C
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England), Tom Foley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)

Agence France-Presse & @rugby365com