Beware menace from Les Bleus, says Mehrtens
Andrew Mehrtens cannot bring himself to write off a struggling France and reckons the All Blacks shouldn't either.
France's recent woeful performances (they finished last in the Six Nations) have hardly bumped up New Zealanders' pulse rates ahead of the three-test series here in June.
Yet former All Blacks and Crusaders first five-eighth Mehrtens, who returns to his coaching job at second-division French club Beziers-Herault tomorrow after a week in Christchurch, cannot accept they will be a shambles.
Mehrtens believes if Les Bleus coach Philippe Saint-Andre can harness his forwards' power and hatch a game-plan to upset the All Blacks wide game they may be a chance.
"Write them off? No, never, because they have such an abundance of physical talent," Mehrtens said. "And when they are on their day, are all committed and sense everyone is on board they are very tough.
"If you fall into playing their sort of game as well - everyone talks about French flair but by and large the Top 14 (French domestic competition) is based around the scrum, lineout and a gritty defence, certainly around the fringes. They know how to play that well."
The long French season, in which teams can play more expansively either side of the winter months, may also be of some benefit if they tweak their strategies and expose the All Blacks' penchant for keeping the ball alive.
"They play a lot of different rugby over the course of their season and that is maybe one advantage they have over New Zealand," Mehrtens said.
"We see all our teams play basically the same sort of rugby, which is difficult when you encounter a different sort of rugby - in handling it and working out ways to counter it."
Last weekend, Mehrtens watched the Crusaders beat the Bulls in his first visit to the new AMI Stadium and then watched former team-mates Todd Blackadder, Dave Hewett, Tabai Matson and Aaron Mauger train them at Rugby Park.
Mehrtens said he has no burning desire to return to Christchurch to further his coaching his career.
However, he believed the French clubs would benefit if they could transfuse some of the Crusaders' professionalism into their systems.
"I know it doesn't always necessarily convert to to a win on Saturday but the buzz at training, the organisation, the cleanliness - it's a striking difference from what you experience overseas. "And long may it continue because that is our strength. If the French got their act together that would be pretty frightening. They have got all the physical talent in the world. I just don't think they are maximising it at any level."
Getting the French to recognise such changes needed to be made, he said was not easy.
But he believed a top club, such as Toulouse, would benefit from a more efficient system.
"That is not to say you can just transplant an Anglo-Saxon system or a Crusaders organisation on them. That is not necessarily what you should do either.
"But, certainly, there are aspects to our rugby education and rugby organisations that would be applicable anywhere and help in France. It is just hard to get change over here."