All Blacks put France's reinvigorated team to acid test
PARIS (AP) It's time for France to find out how much it has improved under Guy Noves.
After showing passion, pugnacity, and flair in a narrow defeat to the Wallabies last weekend, the French conclude their autumn rugby tests against the All Blacks at the Stade de France on Saturday.
They last met a year ago, when New Zealand thrashed France 62-13 on its way to the Rugby World Cup title. That was the last match on Philippe Saint-Andre's underwhelming watch, and Noves took over this year.
Noves has managed to reconcile the Tricolors with their fans by implementing flamboyant rugby based on power and offloading out of contact. Against Australia, the French won all the scrums and unveiled a lot of showy moves, but they still lost 25-23. France's goalkicking was poor, and it lost the breakdown battle.
Knowing that, Noves made only three changes to face the Kiwis, and gave a starting nod to flyhalf Camille Lopez, last week's reserve. Noves pledged to keep going with the same game plan.
''Playing with a lot of movement will help us perform. That is what we have to insist on,'' he said. ''If you look at the games where the small nations upset the big guns, it is when they put the emphasis on movement.''
Whether Noves regarded France as one of those ''small nations'' was unclear. But he said his players would not be seeking revenge for the Rugby World Cup humiliation in Cardiff.
''Wearing the France jersey should be enough,'' he said.
That quarterfinal exorcized the All Blacks' loss to France in the 2007 quarters in Cardiff, one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. They also paid back the Irish last weekend for an historic first loss to them three weeks ago. The price was Sam Cane, Malakai Fekitoa, and Ben Smith were either injured or suspended. Out-of-form scrumhalf Aaron Smith was also dropped.
''It was a very physical match in Dublin so we have looked to get this week's preparation spot on, both mentally and physically,'' New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said. ''The French have improved immensely since the Rugby World Cup.''
Here's a look at other games:
ENGLAND vs. ARGENTINA (England leads 14-1-4), London, 1430 GMT
Defeats to Wales and Scotland this month extended the Pumas' losing streak to six tests going into their last match of 2016. They are unlikely to get any respite against England.
The form of the English couldn't be much different, with Saturday's 58-15 victory over Fiji moving their winning run to 12 games. Eleven of them have come under Eddie Jones in the Australian's first year in charge since taking over after the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
England's strength of depth is starting to show. Such is the team's resources on the wing, for example, that Jones can afford to drop Semesa Rokoduguni – a scorer of two of England's tries against Fiji and one of the star performers – even though the coach is already without injured wingers Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson.
Then, in-form Joe Launchbury gets suspended for kicking a Fiji player, and Jones is able to replace him with George Kruis, a mainstay in the second row this year and just back from injury.
Argentina flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez is free to play after a disciplinary committee judged he shouldn't be punished for striking an opponent against Scotland.
WALES vs. SOUTH AFRICA (South Africa leads 28-1-2), Cardiff, 1730 GMT
This is definitely the last test match for retiring South Africa captain Adriaan Strauss. It could be the last one as Springboks coach for Allister Coetzee, too.
SA Rugby will undertake a full review of a woeful 2016 following this match, and Coetzee's job likely is on the line, with the team having won just four of its 11 tests this year.
Coetzee apologized to the nation last weekend after South Africa's first-ever loss to Italy in Florence, calling it the darkest moment of his coaching career.
''On Monday, players were hurting, it was very morbid,'' Coetzee said. ''We had the day off, busy with psychological repair. There were a number of one-on-ones and a lot of chat. Rugby is rock bottom at the moment, and there can only be one way – up.''
Wales hasn't been that much better in November, having barely avoided losing to Argentina and Japan after a thrashing at the hands of Australia on Nov. 5. Heading into the Six Nations, the Welsh look way behind Ireland and England.
SCOTLAND vs. GEORGIA (Scotland leads 1-0), Kilmarnock, 1430 GMT
Venerable campaigners Ross Ford and Richie Gray have been summoned by Scotland to sort out a tough Georgia forward pack. The Georgians dispatched Samoa at home last weekend with a pushover try and a penalty try. If the Scots can gain parity up front, then the backs believe they can edge Georgia on the artificial surface at Kilmarnock.
Huw Jones, one of the revelations of British backplay this month for starring against Australia and Argentina, was out injured, but he's been replaced by Mark Bennett, who gave up his starting center position to win a sevens rugby silver medal at the Olympics. Bennett was nominated for world breakthrough player of the year in 2015, and was keen to remain a starter.
''Huw has been outstanding in the first two games,'' Bennett said. ''I need to be outstanding.''
Following its best Rugby World Cup, Georgia has enjoyed a notable year with eight wins and a draw in 10 matches. The only loss was to Japan this month. The draw in Samoa in June was subsequently avenged last weekend.
Scotland marks Georgia's first tier one opponent since the Rugby World Cup.
ITALY vs. TONGA (Italy leads 3-1), Padua, 1500 GMT
It's not often Italy start a test as favorite, and can't afford to blow it.
The immense effort it took to beat South Africa last weekend for the first time, and all the deserved acclaim afterwards, would be wasted if Italy didn't account for Tonga at home.
New coach Conor O'Shea called the win over the Springboks the start of a new chapter for Italy, but consistency will determine that. The task was a little harder without Sergio Parisse, who was missing the match because an incident in a club game almost three weeks ago was finally adjudicated this week, and the Italy captain was banned for three weeks.
Tonga can't be underestimated. Its confidence is up after consecutive wins on tour in Spain, against Spain and the United States.