Watch out, French can be hard to hold

If things begin to go a little awry for France tonight, look out.

That is the time to be extra wary of them, because they get into a zone where they will start shifting the ball around and experimenting with some exotic ideas.

Then they can be hard to hold – as I found a few times down the years.

France know they will be in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, no matter the result at Eden Park tonight. So there’s no way they will start with any defeatist attitude.

They have picked a strong team. I was fascinated they chose it so early in the week so they must have a plan.

Of course the big discussion point has been the selection of Morgan Parra at first five-eighths.

He has never started a test in that role, but he is a sharp footballer and a brilliant halfback who I’m sure can adjust. It’s whether he’s had enough time to get used to the different defensive alignments in that role.

But he is some player, and so is halfback Dimitri Yachvili, and maybe they will keep each on one side of the field or swap roles as first receiver.

Who knows? What we do know is coach Marc Lievremont is looking for something outside the box. It could be a masterstroke.

Francois Trinh-Duc has not been doing anything special at first five-eighths, but maybe the coach is looking to protect him for later in the tournament or to give him a hurry-up about finding that form.

Some have suggested France are throwing the game, but that is well wide of the mark. They also know the result tonight is not the be-all and end-all of their tournament.

If they start playing as individuals, that’s the time I get a bit twitchy because it will be unfamiliar to the All Blacks. That sort of ad-lib style hurts sides and if they mould that to strong work from their pack, look out.

The French have great pride in their set piece and have a saying, no scrum no win, so I expect them to be solid in those phases.

At Toulon we had a player who was with Lievremont at the Dax club and he said Lievremont was very much a players’ coach, someone who liked the team ethic and worked hard towards that.

He has a reputation as a strong technical coach who surrounds himself with good people. But he does make some far-out selections and puts questions in people’s minds.

Lievremont is out of a job after this tournament so I suppose he will do things his way, walk off into the sunset and pick up eight months’ pay until the end of his deal.

I was part of an All Black team clobbered a few times by France, as Olivier Magne reminded me recently.

There was of course that remarkable comeback in 1999 at the World Cup, then a similar fury the next year at Marseilles. That was scary. The atmosphere there, the singing, the noise, everything was just full-on. So were the French. They can play like an unstoppable force.

I feel for Mils Muliaina not making tonight’s team because I am a mate and a fan, but Israel Dagg in his very limited time has been sharp every game. His performance coming back from injury straight into top form shows he can compete.

Mils missed a chance with his hamstring strain last week but he will keep pushing hard. Richard Kahui on the wing is a great story and Cory Jane too, after he had the worst sort of Super 15, got a chance and grabbed it.

Apart from Kieran Read, this is close to our best XV. I think they are ready to give it plenty.

I feel for them. I was out at the Counties Manukau Steelers awards the other night with Mark Brooke-Cowden, a World Cup winner in 1987, while Eric Rush and I were part of sides who did not do as well.

In some way our failures have heaped even more pressure upon the current side to do the business this time. I’m confident though.

It’s also great we can honour Richie McCaw as he plays his 100th test. It is a huge achievement and will give the All Blacks extra motivation.

There has never been anyone to challenge him. He is an incredible trainer and his work ethic is extraordinary.

I remember standing next to him during the anthems in his 2001 debut at Lansdowne Rd in Dublin.

I told him to relax and he went out and had a blinder – and I had a shocker! That was the start of his fabulous career, he is a heck of a man and heck of a rugby player.