All Blacks reject French lack of respect claims
Graham Henry has reacted angrily to French suggestions that the All Blacks showed them a lack of respect ahead of June's shock defeat at Carisbrook.
France hooker William Servat told reporters at the team's training base at Marcoussis, near Paris, that New Zealand paid the price for underestimating his team back in June when a hard-fought series was squared 1-1. He warned that the All Blacks will be punished in Sunday's (NZ time) "rubber match” at the Stade Velodrome if they make the same mistake again.
France upset the All Blacks 27-22 in Dunedin, before the All Blacks turned the tables 14-10 on a wet night in Wellington, though the visitors took home the Dave Gallaher Trophy on points countback.
The All Blacks are putting great stock in this being the year's series decider, and also in reclaiming the trophy they regard as something special because of its eponymous Kiwi war hero.
"When we were in New Zealand they put their Walkman headphones on and were smiling a bit. I'm not sure they were smiling after playing against us," Servat told French reporters. "With regards to that, it will really set the tempo for the match."
"Rubbish,'' said Henry when told about Servat's accusations today at his team naming press conference.
The All Blacks coach said he wasn't frustrated by comments like Servat's, but his face betrayed a different set of emotions.
"I'm used to comments like that. I just ignore them and get on with what we're trying to do. There are no facts in that.
"We always take every game we play very seriously,'' he added. "We prepared well, and they were better than us on the day. That's the way rugby is... They're a very good side the French. We respect them.
"They're probably a side, with the South Africans, that think they can win every time they play against the All Blacks. And they've got some very talented footballers. They've got a lot more to choose from than we have, and we hope to give them a game on Saturday.”
Henry made it clear that the edge was coming into proceedings as the test the All Blacks are saying will "define” their year draws closer.
After the players had a day off in Marseille today (some made a trip to the nearby ancient city of Avignon; others did their own thing, ranging from playing petanque to catching up with friends) Henry appeared a little anxious as he spoke to the media back at the team hotel in the early evening.
He even brought out the hoary chestnut of New Zealanders – not All Blacks, mind – showing a lack of respect towards international rugby teams.
"European sides have always been strong,'' said Henry when asked the inevitable north-south question. "I think in New Zealand we lack respect for opposition generally. We think the All Blacks are going to win every time they play. That's what we'd like to do but it's difficult because other side like France are exceptionally strong.”
"We get a false sense of our strength at times and we need to respect there are strong sides all round the world.''
But Henry was buying into the high stakes of a clash being billed the "Battle of the Hemispheres'' as it pits the form teams of north and south from the autumn tests in a grand finale of sorts.
The coach even admitted that the result would go a long way to defining the success or otherwise of a year in which the All Blacks have already lost four times.
"I think there's some truth in that,'' said Henry. "If we don't win on Saturday we've had an average year. If we do win it's been OK. OK is better than average. To go through Europe and the test in Tokyo unbeaten would be a marvellous achievement.
"But we haven't done that yet. We've got a major test match ahead of us.''
Then Henry touched on the sheer scale of what his side is on the precipice of, looking to keep alive its record of never having lost an autumn test in Europe since he took over in 2003. They have also not had their line crossed up here since the last test of the 2006 tour.
"We can see from other southern hemisphere countries touring Europe it's not easy, despite what other people think. It's a very difficult tour. We're very proud of our record here. Other sides have tried to emulate that and haven't done so.''
The All Blacks will wear their white jerseys for this test, despite suggestions that France have gone to a lighter shade of blue that would not have been a colour clash with the black jersey.
Henry refused to be needled on that, and nor did he dare criticise his opponents for not coming to Marseille until Friday, leaving the New Zealanders running a one-team rugby hype mission in this football-mad city.
"I don't make anything of that,” shrugged Henry. "They're the French team, they've played at Marseille before. They've only been beaten here once in history, and I'm sure they know what they're doing.”
You wonder. In 2000 the French were in town early and worked themselves to a frenzy by match night. This time they will just slip in under the cover of night on the match's eve.
Who knows? Maybe it's the French not showing the respect to their opponents this week. We shall find out on Saturday night (8.45am kickoff Sunday, NZ time).