France hoping for ‘masterstroke’ against All Blacks

Captain Mathieu Bastareaud (L) is backing France to pull off an upset against New Zealand.

Auckland (AFP) – Underdogs France are looking to pull off a trademark “masterstroke” against the All Blacks when they open their three-Test series on Saturday, captain Mathieu Bastareaud said.

France memorably upset New Zealand at the 1999 and 2007 World Cups but they haven’t arrived in the best of shape, after finishing fourth in this year’s Six Nations.

Bastareaud, who has a chequered record in New Zealand after falsely claiming he was assaulted in Wellington in 2009, described the All Blacks as “a mythical team and jersey”.

But despite the overwhelming odds facing them, he said France were still eyeing their first win in nine years against the triple world champions.

France were the last team to overcome New Zealand at Auckland’s Eden Park, way back in 1994, since when the hosts are unbeaten in 40 games — including the 2011 World Cup final, when they edged Les Bleus 8-7.

“We are here because we think we can challenge them. A win would be a masterstroke,” said Bastareaud, who said he preferred to leave his personal history in New Zealand aside.

In New Zealand, Bastareaud is well known for the 2009 French tour when, as a 20-year-old, he lied about cuts and bruises on his face, claiming he was assaulted on the streets of Wellington.

It caused an international uproar at the time, and public safety in the New Zealand capital was under scrutiny until video evidence proved he had returned to his hotel safely. It later emerged the injuries were the result of a drunken fall in his hotel room. 

“I’m not a man who reads the press,” said the 120kg-plus centre, who is on his second visit to New Zealand since the incident but his first as captain.

“I try to focus on what I have to do as a captain and player for the team. It will be a big battle, a big challenge and my personal case comes after the team.”

– ‘Keep it simple’ –

Stand-in All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock urged his team to keep it simple against the French, warning they were much better than their Six Nations record of two wins and two losses would suggest.

“You look at the (French) defence and how they’ve improved through the Six Nations. They’ve had a lot of improvement,” he said. 

“The same with the ball in hand so they’ve got some quality players that love to use the ball in hand and I’m sure they’ll be trying to get those guys into space.” 

Even with regular skipper Kieran Read injured and out for the series — although keenly involved in Friday’s training — Whitelock has several experienced leaders in the team, including Ben Smith, Sam Cane, and his brother Luke Whitelock. 

That’s a big bonus for the 97-Test lock, who will rely on the leaders in the team when his head is buried in the tight.

“It’s making my job pretty easy,” Whitelock said.

“When they’re giving messages it’s spot on the money. It’s great. Having a little brother there is good too. Sometimes he’s beating me to the punch if he knows what I’m going to say and he sneaks in there and does it.”

Whitelock added that the All Blacks game plan was not rocket science, despite suggestions of a new attack style.

“Keep it simple. Everyone’s picked because they are good rugby players and you need to trust that natural instinct that’s built up over many years,” he said.

All Blacks midfield general Ryan Crotty knows the All Blacks will have their work cut out trying to break down the French defence. 

“If you look at their stats, tries conceded, line-breaks conceded and tackle percentage were best in the Six Nations. That means our attack has to be pretty sharp this week,” he said, speaking admiringly of the way the French used possession. 

“They’ve got good footwork, great skillsets, they can offload, and can play what they see.

“It means you’re going to have to be on your game defensively, and nail your alignment and tackle execution to shut their game down.”