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Operation deja vu

History tells us that seven days in French Rugby can either fortify or utterly fracture the status quo.

Yes, a week of retaliatory planning is the perfect scenario for these quixotic Frenchmen to reveal ‘un petit lapin blanc ‘ (a little white rabbit).

As outlined last week, Les Bleus are the pre-eminent comeback kings of international rugby. This week their team is empowered by a new inspirational captain, wholesale personnel changes and a siege mentality.

Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie has seen it all before. Circa 1989 in Lille, as Australia’s newest prop he was injured and sitting alongside, shouldering the expert’s role in the ABC’s commentary position.

With nine fresh faces and a new skipper in the home starting team after being hammered the previous week in Strasbourg. Wallaby fortunes unravelled before our eyes as the unheralded French replacements defiantly answered their call of destiny.

Australia v France 1989

France v Australia in Lille 1989

Fast forward 25 years and the whiff of a chilly Lille wind ominously hovers over Etihad Stadium.  Wallabies beware!

Five wins on the trot with a focus on playing the ‘Australian way’ has accelerated the reinvigoration process under McKenzie. Last week’s seven try haul was a brilliant season launch but the players realize the honeymoon is over.

The return of Thierry Dusautoir at openside flanker, supported by the maurading opportunist Yannick Nyanga will challenge Australia’s fluency at the breakdown. That efficiency was a really impressive aspect last week with backs ever ready to clean out with power and drive as the French looked on.

Scrum half Morgan Parra is a threat with his tactical left boot and is also a superb reader of what’s in front. His ability to slot into no.10 at the last Rugby World Cup and perform with awareness and assurance is the stuff of legend.

Wrecking ball Mathieu Bastereaud will be a focal point in midfield but as Toulon teammate Matt Giteau has pointed out, the key is to stifle him before he gets momentum. Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani won’t be holding back in rugged defence,

The French will be happy to see the back of injured Wallaby forwards Sam Carter and Wycliff Palu. Those two guys did a lot of the heavy lifting around the breakdown. Cliffy hurts people when he hits and Carter is an old fashioned workaholic lock.

James Horwill

James Horwill in action against the Lions in 2013

Therein lies a supreme challenge for the two replacements James Horwill and Ben McCalman. “Big Kev” plays his 50th Test  and this time last year was enveloped by an IRB counter appeal for an alleged stamping incident in the 1st Lions Test.  

That appeal was subsequently dismissed but Horwill’s emotions poured out on the field at Etihad after full-time when he crouched to savour the victory and reflect on his stressful ordeal in the leadup.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve,” he told me this week. “I am an emotional person. It is all about the passion and that is what I hope to bring this Saturday night.”

“Big Dog” McCalman has added 4kgs to his frame this season and this extra power will be needed to counter the loss of Palu. The Force backrower is of solid country stock from Warren where he grew up on the family farm.  Robust cleanout, carry and tackle are his focus points.

It has been suggested the French will play more field position this Saturday but realistically there will be a balance. Fullback Brice Dulin from Castres loves to counter attack. After all, why would you kick the ball back to Israel Folau?

Maxime Medard is a world class finisher on the wing and the reinstatement of the Basteraud/Fofana centre combination will pose a big threat. Fofana made line breaks at Suncorp and 125 kgs Basteraud loves to offload in contact.

Australia v France

Tevita Kuridran with a big hit on Hugo Bonneva

In Brisbane, the Wallabies scramble defence in the first half was impressive but it will need to be even better. The unpredictable Frenchmen come at you from different angles and can step both ways. They are hard to read and are definitely up for the battle.

The challenge facing young skipper Michael Hooper and the Wallabies is to wrap up the series and register their best winning sequence since 2008.

To achieve that, the players are only too aware they must absorb everything France throws at them and then counter at the earliest opportunity.

Observation of the pace and urgency of the Wallabies play last week reminded me of Ric Charlesworth’s Kookaburras’ hockey team which is currently engaged in the World Cup in The Hague.

When you hear Aussie skipper Mark Knowles in the team huddles before each game his message is …“Relentless, relentless, relentless! Start fast and finish even harder.”

If the Wallabies can produce that specific mindset and execute with accuracy, they will be unstoppable.

On the other hand, if this revamped French team is allowed to play at their pace and grab the initiative the Aussies face a pitched battle and will need all their skill and nous to prevail.

Gordon Bray is TEN Sport's chief rugby caller and will be joined by Wallaby legends  Matt Burke and Stirling Mortlock for the live broadcast from 7.30pm Saturday AEST.