WELLINGTON – The outcome of Saturday's first test between the All Blacks and France could well be determined by who copes best with their lengthy injury lists as both sides are set to field below-strength lineups for the clash at Eden Park. Lock Brodie Retallick became the fourth senior All Blacks player to be ruled out of the series on Thursday, following regular captain Kieran Read (back), inside centre Sonny Bill Williams (knee) and hooker Dane Coles (knee). Sam Whitelock, who leads the team in Read's absence, centre Ryan Crotty and flanker Sam Cane have also battled injuries and barely appeared in Super Rugby in the final month ahead of Saturday's game.
France coach Jacques Brunel, who replaced Guy Noves last December, also has injury concerns with at least six players unavailable for the tour, while others are being rested and the timing of the Top 14 final affected his selections. Brunel has said he is looking ahead to next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan and is using the series to bed-in the nucleus of that squad. His decision to recall fullback Maxime Medard, scrumhalf Morgan Parra and prop Uini Antonio, all of whom are making returns on Saturday after long absences, suggests he is still assessing his options.
"This is the ultimate opportunity for us to make a final review of the squad and to see new players join the France group before this pre-World Cup season begins," Brunel said. Some players in this group had this opportunity and seized it and are still with us."
"During this tour, others can come back or take their chance because the upcoming season will see the group tightening ... in anticipation of the Rugby World Cup at Japan."
His All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen is also in World Cup planning mode, though he has a largely tried and tested squad to choose from. An injury crisis amongst his backup props with Nepo Laulala, Kane Hames, Atu Moli and Tim Perry all out injured, however, means the virtually unknown Karl Tu'inukuafe will be given a test debut from the bench on Saturday. Hansen's other major concern this year is tactics and in particular how to counteract the kind of rush defence employed by the British and Irish Lions last year that restricted the All Blacks' ability to play with width at pace. The system has since been adapted by other teams and Hansen said his side had to be able to break it down.
"The biggest trend is being able to deal with all the linespeed and what variations you can put into your attack to punish that," Hansen told the New Zealand Herald this week.
"We've talked about having a triple-threat game (run, pass and kick) and it's having the ability to make good decisions with high-end skills."