For me its fitting that the French rugby team arrived this week. The week after a rainy, cold Queens Birthday weekend (that's a Bank Holiday for our flat-clapped readers) on which I watched the a stunning Canal Plus TV series called ‘Les Revenants’.
Ostensibly this is a show about an isolated mountain town in the Rhone where the dead loved ones of the townsfolk start turning up again - looking fit and oblivious to the fact they have shuffled of this mortal coil anywhere between 3 and 35 years previously.
What do ‘Les Revenants’ have to do with ‘Les Bleus’ you may ask? Well, its now about 18 months since New Zealand squeaked past France in the RWC2011 final, and these ‘Returned’ Frenchmen making up the French Rugby Union's latest weak touring party may well prove to be another batch of Walking Dead in 3-4 weeks.
Much has been made of the All Blacks’ own injury/age/depth crises, but I see this as an opportunity to create a new blend of All Black XV - mixing experienced players with some greener squad members, and some flat out rookies. We are halfway into the cycle towards RWC2015, and this year we need to start putting our markers of intent down. Perenara, Cruden, Luatua, Piatau, B Smith, Cane are all crucial to our next World Cup. I would also love to see a Cruden/Carter attack axis at 10 and 12 as the manifestation this declaration Hansen wants us to attack from anywhere now.
On top of that, we need to smash an ill-prepared, over-played, under strength visiting squad straight out of the European tournaments’ finals. Its not often that I agree with Mark Reason, he can be a bit of a Fairfax troll ... but he’s scratched the surface on this recurring issue. Once again this is a case of a Northern Hemisphere national union being played by its merchant club owners, allowing a clash of the Top 14 final and an outbound tour to New Zealand. Result: New Zealand gets a less than vintage opposition with some top French players being 'rested', particularly for the first Test.
Fixing the Test schedule to once again accommodate meaningful tours was supposed to fix this. I would say that even before we met out old foe in the final in 2011, All Black fans were excited by the prospect of having France here for three Tests on the trot in 2013 - a return to the old days. One whole month ... time for the visitors to build character and momentum away from home; time for the hosts to get injured, rattled, rejuvenated.
I concede our own situation in SANZAR is also a mess, with Super Rugby now crashing into the June Test window, and this year having to be carved to fit the inbound Lions tour to Australia. The necessity to do this is because of the sheer mountain of cash a Lions tour brings to the host (the ARU ’s deficit will be wiped because of it) ... but at least we do shift things around to get Test rugby in.
The outcry from Europe when New Zealand plays a supposed second string team when we are on tour is usually very loud ... but we have still usually won. If France’s national Union remains so beholden to its club tycoons (like Toulon’s Mourad Boudjella) that it sends a weakened team we need to postpone the boardroom meetings, and simply conduct a grass roots Special AGM on the pitch.
The international calendar needs to desperately be reorganised & standardised to protect Test rugby and stop the eventual slide towards 'friendlies' between teams composed of whoever the UK & French clubs choose to release. And I do see this as a NH problem because all three SANZAR Unions love beating Europe so much I think its less likely we ill ever cave and send weakened teams. (Though NZ and SA were guilty of ‘cotton woolling players in the Rugby Championship prior to RWC2011).
So, yeah, this could bite me in the arse, there is a slim chance we could lose. However, as World Champions, this is a ticket to smash the Wooden Spooners of this year’s Six Nations 3-0, this weekend especially. Send a message. If their players go home with their tails between their legs, maybe the bosses will take notice.
Personally, I think it may be more of a 2-1 scenario to New Zealand. We can be slow starters, and Les Bleus may come out firing.
I hope they do - I am too much a fan of French rugby to wish otherwise.