Kiwis primed for scrum test
Auckland - All Blacks prop Ben Franks says frontrowers won't get credit for the part they're likely to play in deciding the outcome of Sunday's Rugby World Cup final.
He's joking, but only to a small extent: frontrowers seldom get the credit they deserve and he knows it. They work in the engine room of any rugby team but it's usually the players on the bridge who get the attention.
Franks says the scrum battle between the All Blacks and France on Sunday will be a crucial element of the final, a contest between the two best packs in world rugby.
The All Blacks gained the upper hand over Australia's scrum in winning its semi-final 20-6 last weekend, while France understandably got the better of a Welsh pack reduced to seven men after openside flank Sam Warburton was sent off in the 18th minute. France's scrummaging ability is still well-known and immediately acknowledged by Franks on behalf of the All Blacks pack.
Tighthead prop Jean-Baptiste Poux, hooker William Servat and loosehead Nicolas Mas have a combined total of almost 120 Test matches, a combined weight of more than 315 kilograms and are ranked among the best in their position in the world.
The French place huge emphasis on scrummaging as a macho statement and a chance to beat an opponent by attrition. Franks said New Zealand's view of the value of set pieces was more pragmatic.
"When you've got backs like the All Blacks have got you need to give them quality ball from set piece," he said. "The better ball we can provide to them from lineout and scrum, the more effective they can be.
"And that's not just with the All Blacks. Every team wants to have that edge and to able to give their backs great ball and it's the physical contest too.
"As men you don't want to be taking backward steps. That's the great challenge of scrummaging and forward play. You win some and you lose some. But big games like this weekend, the team that can perform best in those sort of areas will go a long way toward winning it."
Franks said the All Blacks scrum had steadily improved this season under the guidance of New Zealand's highly respected scrum coach Mike Cron. Cron has also had a close association with some of the French forwards and received a good luck text this week from Servat.
"I have to say the scrum is where it was always heading," Franks said. "You've got to realise that when we come together as All Blacks, we're a group of guys who've come from different forward packs and it takes time to gel and to get those combinations together."
The semi-final, he added, "was just a progression from when we started way back against Fiji (in June) and it's come right at the right time.
"The difference between a good scrum and a bad scrum can be very small so we need to go up another notch from the weekend because the French pack definitely will, so it will be a great finish."
All Blacks No 8 Keiran Read agreed with Franks that the New Zealand scrum was still a work in progress, but said it was capable of sharp improvement against France.
"It probably ebbs and flows," he said. "Some games it goes great and some games maybe not quite so good.
"But I think consistently it's been of a pretty high standard the last few years and definitely at the moment it's a real strength and we just need to keep building it because there's no bigger test than the French pack. It's going to be a big battle for us."
* RWC final odds on BET.CO.ZA: New Zealand vs France