Rugby writers accused France of picking a weaker team because the loser of Saturday’s game in Auckland is likely to face an easier route through the knock-out stages.
“It is an insult to the 60,000 who have bought tickets expecting a contest between teams at full strength,” fumed rugby journalist Peter Bills, in a column in the New Zealand Herald.
“France have devalued the most eagerly awaited World Cup game for four years and blown an enormous raspberry at the IRB (International Rugby Board),” wrote Bills.
“France have made so many bizarre selections for this weekend that the conspiracy theory is the only logical explanation,” he added.
The match is loaded with historical significance after France shocked the All Blacks in the quarter-finals four years ago, reviving memories of their famous 1999 semi when Les Bleus came storming back from behind to win 43-31.
French coach Marc Lievremont named scrum-half Morgan Parra at fly-half, left usual number eight Inamol Harinordoquy on the bench, while giving Dimitri Szarzewski his first start of the competition at hooker.
The French camp have hotly denied any suggestions that they are sending out an understrength team and insist they are bent on once again defeating the All Blacks.
“I see no reason at all why the French team, even if we won our first two games, would give up on this match,” said lock Pascal Pape.
“Just on an ethical level alone there is no way that would enter our minds and I think it shows a lack of respect for the 22 players selected for Saturday.”
Back Cedric Heyman added that the jibes would act as “an additional source of motivation” for the French side.
The top team in Pool A will face likely knock-out games against Argentina and either South Africa or Australia to reach the final, while the runner-up looks set to play England and then Ireland or Wales.
“Coach Marc Lievremont has chosen virtually a second-string forward pack for the clash with the All Blacks at Eden Park on Saturday,” wrote Bills.
“It is a match that the rugby world has been waiting to see since the draw was made. Ever since France put New Zealand out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in Cardiff, All Black fans have waited for the chance for revenge.
“But Saturday’s re-match has been downgraded close to an irrelevance by the deliberate French selection… The IRB would appear powerless to stop this kind of tactical manoeuvring. It is making a joke of the World Cup and officials should be concerned.”
Elsewhere the Herald called it “Rugby World Cup’s $460 French farce”, referring to the high price of tickets for the hotly anticipated clash.
“It’s not on. It’s the World Cup, and you’ve got to play it like you mean it,” All Blacks fan Peter Bone was quoted as saying.
The Dominion Post said France had shown a “laid-back attitude” to the game.
“The experimental halves pairing says it all. The result of Saturday’s World Cup pool decider against the All Blacks is almost secondary from a French perspective,” their correspondent wrote.