Interview: ESPN's Nick Mullins previews France vs. Australia

Interview: ESPN's Nick Mullins
Sports Mole talks to ESPN rugby commentator Nick Mullins, who looks ahead to this weekend's explosive Autumn International between France and Australia.

France and Australia go head to head in their opening Autumn International this weekend, with the home side desperate to move up in the rankings for the 2015 World Cup in England.

The Wallabies have the chance to record their sixth straight victory over Les Bleus this Saturday but France will be determined not to succumb to a repeat of the 2010 contest, which Australia dominated 59-16 at the Stade de France.

With the clash just days away, Sports Mole spoke to ESPN's lead rugby commentator Nick Mullins, who gave his thoughts on who could come out on top and which players could make the difference for the nations.

Let's start with France. Head coach Philippe Saint-Andre has cut his provisional squad back for this weekend's match. What do you make of his decision to leave out certain fringe players?
"I think the importance of this weekend for Saint-Andre is that it's the first time since he became coach that he's really been able to test himself against the best in the world over successive weekends. He's had the Six Nations but a year ago he was watching France like the rest of us - confused, bemused and then [they] entertained us all at the World Cup, so I think he's still some way short of working out precisely what his best 15, what his best 22 is. I think at the moment it's very much about sharpening his mind on to who his best players are so I don't think he wants to muddy the waters too much."

Scrum-half Morgan Parra has been passed fit for the clash after recovering from a thigh strain. How much of a boost do you think this could prove to be for the French?
"Well I think he adds the 'X Factor' if you want to use that phrase. He clearly offers some stability kicking-wise as well, he's a terrific game manager. The thing that I admire most about him is that he does offer something different but at the same time he's got the game that can deliver the nuts and bolts as well. Very often with players you get one thing or the other but Parra is one of those players who offers a real threat at the fringes, he kicks well and he controls his forwards nicely. It's an enormous boost, he's one of those French players who would be knocking on the door of the world 15 so I'm sure Saint-Andre is looking at him as someone who can take them all the way through to the World Cup."

Saint-Andre said that he wants new leaders to emerge on Saturday. Who do you think is capable of doing this?
"One of the tough things about trying to predict too much about the French at the moment is that I'm not entirely sure that they know. I know it's a cliche and it's a frustrating cliche, but the World Cup proved to us that they're just impossible to read at the moment. I think it's the nature of the Top 14 to a certain extent. It's a league that's perhaps the best in terms of quality, the best league in Europe at the moment. It's creating week in, week out some fantastic matches but you look at the leaders within the teams in the Top 14 and more often than not the key players for those clubs are overseas players at the moment.

"I think French rugby had a lot of money coming into it and certainly could afford to buy more players than the English Premiership can at the moment. I think the downside to that is that there are lots of young French players who have come through in recent times who have become used to the overseas players making the key decisions. I think that's why it is an issue for Saint-Andre because on a week-to-week basis I'm not entirely sure how many of the young French bucks that he's got coming through take a great deal of responsibility for their clubs."

They're hosting Australia at the Stade de France. Do you think that their crushing 59-16 defeat to the Wallabies in 2010 will play on their minds and give them an incentive to win?
"Yeah, it's bound to be an incentive. I'm not entirely sure how many from two years ago will be playing this weekend but yeah, of course that will be an incentive. It was embarrassing, it was as embarrassing a home defeat for the French as I can ever recall. Unexpected as well, because Australia hadn't been pulling up an awful lot of trees up to that point and the French seemed solid enough. It's Armistice weekend as well and I think [Australia head coach] Robbie Deans feels that that will inspire the French as well, and I think Robbie Deans is trying to build the French up as much as he possible can at the moment. If you're a player and particularly if you were involved two years ago then there will be a burning desire not to repeat that scoreline this weekend."

Switching to Australia, they're heading into the match with five straight wins over France, they're second in the rankings, which is three spots above Les Bleus. Do you think that relieves some of the pressure or will that be irrelevant on the day?
"Absolutely relevant in terms of World Cup rankings and it certainly matters more to the French this weekend because they're just outside the top four, which means that, as we all know, if the draw was tomorrow they would have to play one of the Southern Hemisphere's top three or England in a Pool in England in 2015. It's a pivotal game and I think [this squad] is still developing.

"We saw in the Championship several bright young players coming through. Robbie Deans is under an awful lot of pressure back home to get it right but what I saw in the game against the All Blacks in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago was a side that are really heading in the right direction and we seem to say each year, in each World Cup cycle that Australia might be the dark horses. If the [Australian Rugby Union] give Deans time and there's no reason to suggest that they won't, then I think they will be a real force in three years time. They play rugby intelligently, they don't have the resources of a New Zealand, a South Africa, or even an England perhaps but what they do have they make the absolute most of and they've got some big names coming back on this Tour. I think this Tour's critical, particularly given that it's in the Northern Hemisphere."

Skipper Nathan Sharpe has welcomed the return of injured trio Berrick Barnes, David Pocock and Stephen Moore. Who do you think are going to stand out for the Wallabies this weekend?
"David Pocock clearly is the guy who makes them tick. I remember seeing him when he first toured here four, five years ago now and thinking that we'd not seen anyone quite like him for a while. He's been the best openside to arrive since [New Zealand's] Richie McCaw in my eyes. He's intelligent, he has that knack of understanding where the ball will be half a second before any of those on the other side appear to realise that. He's just the perfect physical specimen to be that foraging openside flanker. He's got shoulders that can carry several trays of beer on each of them without them seeming to worry him too much. He's got arms the size of tree trunks, I just love watching him. He's a great guy off the pitch [too]. If you were looking for a personification of all that's good about Australian rugby at the moment then it would be David Pocock. I'm thrilled that he's fit enough to be part of this Tour in our part of the world."

Looking at the match itself, what type of game are you expecting?
"I think because of what's happened in recent times, particularly two years ago, and because for all that we've said it is a more important game for the French because of the World Cup rankings. If they can beat a team who are ahead of them in the rankings, then it's really going to put pressure on England over the next three or four weeks to at least repeat that against one of the big three when they play them. I wouldn't be surprised to see the French keep it quite tight early on, I think they'll use Parra to kick a lot. I think they'll look to play in the right areas and Parra coming back will allow them to do that. He'll offer some control from nine and it'll be interesting to see who they use at 10. Once they've got their feet under the table then they can use the likes of Gael Fickou for the first time and we'll get to see how he takes to international rugby. They've got a good balance, the French, and I think that the pressure will be on them to keep it tight early on and if they can do that and start to involve Fickou in the way that Toulouse have used him in the Heineken Cup and in the Top 14 then I see no reason why they can't beat the Wallabies.

Lastly, England are due to face Australia on the November 27. What should Stuart Lancaster's men be prepared for?
"Just very intelligent rugby players. Australian rugby players have tended to make the absolute most of whatever they've had, whether that's playing resources down the years or skill quality. I think they're a much more rounded team than they have been in recent times. Their scrum, which was a little bit of a joke not so long ago, has been chiselled into, if not one of the best in the world certainly one that is workable. I think England will be concerning themselves much more about the make-up of their team because I'm not sure it's entirely clear yet what Stuart Lancaster's first 15 will be. I'm not sure he knows precisely what it will be yet so from England's point of view, the key will be to get their house in order and worry about Australia when they need to."

Watch International Rugby Union exclusively live on ESPN this Saturday as France take on Australia with coverage starting from 7.30pm www.espn.co.uk/tv. For more news, comment, video and analysis, visit dedicated rugby website, ESPNscrum.com

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