France and All Blacks under Immense Pressure before Rugby World Cup Opening Night Showdown

AP Photo/Michel Euler
New Zealand’s rugby head coach Ian Forster leaves a media conference Creteil, outside Paris, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. New Zealand is facing France in the opening of the Rugby World Cup at Stade de France Friday.

It is debatable who is under the most pressure between France and New Zealand on Friday in their monumental Rugby World Cup opener that does and does not matter.

Coach Fabien Galthie and Co. have pulled off a buildup designed to peak France at their home World Cup. The team’s first World Cup cycle of the 2020s contrasts starkly with the 2010s when France wallowed in putrid mediocrity. The renaissance has collected 31 wins from 39 tests, trophies, awards, milestones and adoring support in droves for Les Tricolores.

Every home game since November 2021 has been won to also skyrocket expectations and excitement. France is, at this moment, perfectly placed to finally win the World Cup at a 10th attempt.

The pressure on France is to deliver.

No team has managed expectations better or longer than New Zealand. The All Blacks have lived with outsized expectations of victory from within and without for more than 120 years. And they have usually delivered.

No All Blacks defeat is brushed off or forgotten, and they are fresh off their largest ever loss by margin, a 28-point difference to South Africa two weeks ago. That battering shattered a confidence forged by a brilliantly won Rugby Championship, where the All Blacks’ improvements in physicality and discipline were blown away at Twickenham.

The pressure on New Zealand is to respond.

While the winner on Friday in Paris will be lauded, the loser shouldn’t feel disheartened. It’s just the first step. France and New Zealand should get past poolmates Italy, Uruguay and Namibia to reach the quarterfinals, where lurking for them will probably be No. 1-ranked Ireland or No. 2 South Africa. Between a rock and a hard place is an understatement. The Les Tricolores-All Blacks winner will probably meet the Ireland-South Africa loser, and vice versa.

New Zealand has a proud record at the World Cup of being the only team to have never lost a pool game. The record is 31-0, including France in 2011.

But opponents smell blood in the water around these All Blacks after some notable firsts in this World Cup cycle: First to lose to Argentina, first to lose three tests in a row in 24 years; first to lose a home series in 28 years; and first to lose to France in Paris since 1973.

That result in 2021 was No. 3 in France’s ongoing 14-win home streak. With nine players meeting New Zealand for the first time, France won 40-25. It was overpowering up front and daring from the back.

“There’s still a knot in our gut from the last time we were here,” All Blacks assistant coach Scott McLeod said this week. “That hurt.”

New Zealand has 12 survivors from the match. France has 15. But neither are at full strength.

France was without key back Romain Ntamack and forward Paul Willemse for the tournament. Cyril Baille, Anthony Jelonch and midfielder Jonathan Danty were nursing injuries. New Zealand’s wounded included first-choice players Tyrel Lomax, Brodie Retallick, Shannon Frizell, and back Jordie Barrett, while winger Emoni Narawa was departing with a back issue.

But there were still plenty of tasty matchups: Julien Marchand vs. Codie Taylor and Gregory Alldritt vs. Ardie Savea up front; Antoine Dupont vs. Aaron Smith, Matthieu Jalibert vs. Richie Mo’unga, Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere vs. Will Jordan and Mark Telea.

“This game,” Smith said, “is not about me against him, it is about me doing my role for the team. Defensively, we will have a big eye on Dupont and what he can do, and shutting it down, but that’s as a collective. They have got plenty of players who are very dangerous.”

There were gasps in the Paris room in December 2020 when France and New Zealand were drawn in the same pool. Theirs is a matchup dripping with history. New Zealand has beaten France in two World Cup finals. France’s only two wins gave New Zealand its two worst World Cup results. New Zealand’s 62-13 quarterfinal win in 2015 is France’s worst result ever. This will be their tournament-leading eighth matchup.

France President Emmanuel Macron huddled with the players and staff on a field this week. Not to put pressure on the team, Macron said while doing exactly that, but France had an incredible opportunity hosting the World Cup. Duties were attached, he added. “You are at home with 67 million French people behind you.”

All Blacks coach Ian Foster, part of two World Cup wins, wondered if the French will be able to handle the hype around them.

“Part of World Cups is the mental side, about having the confidence and courage to play the game you need to play at the right time,” he said. “It is only when it all starts will we see where people are at.”