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All Blacks prepare for final push

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 24/11/2016 Angelo Risso

New Zealand All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. © Fiona Goodall/Getty Images New Zealand All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. The All Blacks have been tasked with drawing a final 2016 line in the sand after passing their most difficult post-World Cup challenge last week in Dublin.

Coming off a surprise 40-29 loss to Ireland in Chicago three weeks ago, the world champions produced a gargantuan defensive performance to keep the hosts tryless in a 21-9 win.

They'll now end their Test campaign by taking on a rejuvenated French outfit under new boss Guy Noves, still smarting from last year's 62-13 World Cup quarter-final hiding.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen admitted his troops, just 80 minutes from the end of a gruelling season, would have to work harder than usual to mentally prepare for the game.

The side's two most infamous encounters with Les Bleus, defeats in the 1999 and 2007 World Cups, were both preceded by thumping All Blacks victories.

"They were asked another question after Chicago, did they have the strength and character to stand up and right that wrong?" Hansen said.

"Now the next question is, can they do it and stand up and play well again after doing what they did in Ireland?

"So we'll find out a little more about them."

Injuries and suspensions have forced Hansen to tinker with his squad for Saturday's Test at Stade de France, with Sam Cane, Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa all ruled out.

Veteran blindside Jerome Kaino and second-five Ryan Crotty slot back in after recovering from calf and hamstring injuries respectively, while Rieko Ioane will start on the bench.

But the most important change was undoubtedly the decision to drop star halfback Aaron Smith, struggling for confidence and form, for TJ Perenara.

Rated by All Blacks coaches as the best halfback in the world, the 28-year-old Smith appeared to have the yips in Dublin, throwing errant passes and earning a yellow card.

Hansen said Smith's personal issues, stemming from an indiscretion in a Christchurch Airport toilet two months ago, had clearly hit the Highlanders ace hard.

"We know he's a quality player but confidence is a very important ingredient to any sportsman and he's obviously taken a knock there," Hansen said.

"What he's been through has been pretty tough for any person, and to be in the limelight as he is and have to deal with that alongside his partner, it's been horrifically tough."

Led by Toulon rake Guilhem Guirado, Les Bleus cruised past Samoa a fortnight ago before coming within a missed drop goal of beating the Wallabies last week.

Hansen said his troops would need to be on the lookout for the renowned French scrum, as well as the ball-carrying ability of loosies Charles Ollivon, Kevin Gourdon and Louis Picamoles.

Fijian-born wingers Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci were also among the most dangerous in the world with their speed and trickery.

"They're a pretty settled side and since Guy has taken them over, they've started to understand how they want to play and they're getting better and better at it," Hansen said.

ALL BLACKS: Israel Dagg, Waisake Naholo, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Kieran Read (c), Matt Todd, Jerome Kaino, Samuel Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden, Rieko Ioane.

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