Preview: France v New Zealand
Beginning a new season that can't go any worse than the last one, France host the in-form All Blacks at the Stade de France.
Of the eight matches that France have played this year, they have only one victory - a 23-16 win over Scotland back in March. Three losses, combined with drawing against Ireland, condemned France to a last-placed finish in the Six Nations for the first time since 1999.
France simply don't finish bottom of the Six Nations. When you consider the talent they have available, it's absolutely absurd.
Far from the simple June tour perhaps needed to restore confidence, Philippe Saint-André took his squad on a three-match lesson in New Zealand.
France scored a total of 22 points across three matches and conceded 77. For that reason, Saint-André is feeling the heat.
It has been quite the dramatic fall from grace for Les Bleus. Two years ago France were pipped by a point in the Rugby World Cup Final in a game they arguably should have won, against the All Blacks in their backyard - even with Morgan Parra at fly-half.
Of that 23-man squad there are only six survivors. The need for new blood as aging stars such as Julien Bonnaire, Lionel Nallet, Dimitri Yachvili, William Servat and others fell by the wayside was fair enough, but the backline from that night in Auckland has been almost totally discarded.
Vincent Clerc, Aurélien Rougerie, Maxime Mermoz and Alexis Palisson are all still active in the Top 14 and started in the final. Yet for whatever reason they are no longer involved.
Coming back to Parra at fly-half, France proceed to lack an obvious option in the number ten jersey. Saint-André stated in one of his first press conferences after taking charge that for all the attraction of having Jonny Wilkinson, Luke McAlister et al playing in the Top 14, it would damage the national team.
Now, the duo Rémi Talès and Camille Lopez have equal promise and inexperience as the race begins for one of them to be ready for the Rugby World Cup in two years time. Between now and March, one of them has to make a statement. The fact that Parra and Talès is the ninth combination tried out by Saint-André doesn't bode well for consistency.
Depth at fly-half however is not exactly a problem for the All Blacks. In 2013 alone Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Tom Taylor have all excelled in the number ten role for New Zealand, as they marched to ten wins out of ten.
Two words seem to be synonymous with this New Zealand tour of Europe - "perfect year."
Last year New Zealand's similar plan unravelled at Twickenham in a defeat that appears more and more freakish after each dominant performance from the world champions in 2013.
Since their defeat to Australia that lost the Tri-Nations title in 2011, New Zealand have won 30/32 matches scoring an average of 35.7 points per game, conceding an average of 12.6. It is more or less, by that logic, takes a miracle to defeat them whether at home or away.
Conrad Smith is sitting out this tour for a well-earned rest, but such is the All Black conveyor belt that in steps namesake Ben to fill the void. If the Highlander doesn't find his way onto the IRB Player of the Year list it will be a travesty, after setting a new record for tries scored in The Rugby Championship with eight.
After lifting the Rugby Championship title for the second year in succession, the European tour is now seen as a chance to develop younger talent by Steve Hansen and his coaching staff.
For that reason the likes of Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua, Dane Coles and Ryan Crotty will all receive further exposure to international rugby over the next few weeks and be expected to excel.
Where the All Blacks have copped a fair bit of criticism however is with their scrum. Against Argentina they were comprehensively outplayed upfront, twice. It's enough to give other teams hope and the combination of Yannick Forestier and Nicolas Mas can cause problems.
Steve Hansen has left nothing to chance by bringing back Richie McCaw and Dan Carter into the side, with Keven Mealamu picked ahead of Coles at hooker and Liam Messam and Kieran Read - both leading captains in New Zealand themselves - alongside McCaw in the back row.
Three of New Zealand's team have over 100 caps and nine of the XV started in the World Cup Final. The All Blacks are simply better than ever.
Ones to watch:
For France: For Les Bleus, plenty rests on the shoulders of Morgan Parra. If France have any hope in Paris then every single points opportunity with the boot must be taken. The Clermont man is normally dead-eyed when it comes to kicking goals, but he also has the responsibility of shuffling the French pack somehow through the All Blacks defence, and to get the best out of a talented back division. No pressure.
For New Zealand: The return of Cory Jane has been slightly delayed after he was forced to withdraw from the third Bledisloe Cup clash against Australia a few weeks ago. Fully recovered from a ruptured knee, Jane only played a couple of ITM Cup matches for Wellington before being recalled into the All Blacks squad. It speaks volumes of Hansen's faith in Jane - who has 43 caps and 16 tries to his name - to bring him back into the setup as quickly as possible.
Head-to-head: Thierry Dusautoir may wear six on his back but will play as a seven opposite the great Richie McCaw. Neither of these two are strangers to operating on the wrong side of the law - although miraculously Dusautoir was sin-binned in the Top 14 for the first time since 2006 last weekend. The Frenchman nearly won the Rugby World Cup on his own in Auckland but has not been quite the same player since, whilst the question lingers over how much longer the All Blacks actually need McCaw for with the leadership of Kieran Read and the promise of Sam Cane. Time for these two to remind us why they are the best in the business when it comes to turnovers, leadership and physicality.
2013: New Zealand won 24-9 in New Plymouth
2013: New Zealand won 30-0 in Christchurch
2013: New Zealand won 23-13 in Auckland
2011: New Zealand won 8-7 in Auckland
2011: New Zealand won 37-17 in Auckland
2009: New Zealand won 39-12 in Marseille
2009: New Zealand won 14-10 in Wellington
2009: France won 27-22 in Dunedin
2007: France won 20-18 in Cardiff
2007: New Zealand won 61-10 in Wellington
2007: New Zealand won 42-11 in Auckland
Prediction: France's team just looks so far off the boil here, that it's hard to see them coming within 15 points at least. That may seem harsh, but the results from earlier this year in New Zealand and the quality of some of the personnel leave a lot to be desired. The All Blacks are gelled and secure and even with Charles Piutau and Cory Jane coming in on the wings can score plenty of tries. This could turn very ugly. New Zealand by 18.
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Florian Fritz, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Maxime Médard 10 Rémi Talès, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Wenceslas Lauret, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Yannick Forestier.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 20 Antonie Claassen, 21 Jean-Marc Doussain, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Gael Fickou.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Ben Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Ryan Crotty.
Date: Saturday, November 9
Kick-off: 21:00 (local)
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Television match official: Jim Yuille (Scotland)
by Ben Coles