This week on Ewen-Me we catch up with Qantas Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie to see how preparations are going for their upcoming three-game home Test series against France in June.
ARU: Almost three years ago we saw the French come within just one point of upsetting New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup Final. They’ve undergone many changes since that point but seem to be returning to their best. Would you agree?
Ewen: When they are at the top of their game the French have the ability to beat anyone in the world and they have consistently shown they know how to get things right when it comes to Rugby World Cups. Seemingly ever tournament they go deep into the knockout stages and they came so close to upsetting New Zealand a few years ago. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise though - they’ve got a lot of good players who can break open a game for you while their forwards do all the fundamentals very well, especially at set-piece.
One of the main reasons they are able to remain so competitive at the highest level is the volume of their playing base. At the moment they have 14 teams competing in their Division 1 (Top 14) competition and a further 16 teams in Division 2 (Pro D2). While there are more foreign players scattered in each, essentially they have 30 professional teams from which to choose from. Having such a large pool of players has its obvious benefits for the French, but it also creates plenty of unpredictability for their opposition and the constant mystery surrounding their team will be one of the tactical challenges we’ll face come June.
ARU: Having coached in France previously you would understand their Rugby-mentality better than most. Can you give the readers an insight into what the French’s approach will be in June?
Ewen: As I mentioned, one of the major strengths of the French is their unpredictability and that’s something we are definitely going to need to deal with in June. We’re closely assessing their form in the Six Nations currently but there are no guarantees with the French on what their form or selections will be in a few months.
For a start, by the time they arrive in Australia they will be nearing the end of a long 10-month domestic season with the Heineken Cup Final and Top 14 Final to take place in the two weekends before our opening Test. Depending on the success of their individual provinces, this will factor into their preparations and will invariably impact their approach on the game one. It’s conceivable we’ll be preparing for a very different French team in the Brisbane Test as we will be in the second and third game.
For most nations this could cause an issue but France is one team that can completely revamp their roster on a weekly basis and still come up with a better result. This all adds intrigue to the tactical battle but the reality is we’re also going to have quite a bit of mystery surrounding our team with the Super Rugby provinces playing right up until the week before the opening Brisbane Test. We’ll have just six days from assembling to matchday so it’s important we take care of our own backyard first and ensure everyone is ready to go mentally and physically before the first game.
ARU: The prestigious Six Nations has reached its penultimate round and the French, having only lost one game, currently sit in equal first place. What have you made of their performances so far?
Ewen: They’ve been extremely competitive so far to beat England, and they backed that up by showing just how dangerous they can be against Italy, where they scored three tries in roughly 10 minutes.
They’re among a few teams who are still in with a strong chance and I’ll be very interested to see how the next few games pan out. There is no doubt a Six Nations title would be a huge boost for the French before they hit Australian shores.