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Three key battles in Rugby World Cup opening game

Hosts France play New Zealand in the opening game of the Rugby World Cup on Friday in a highly-anticipated match-up between two of the tournament favourites.

Here AFP Sports looks at three key battles that will decide the game between the fancied hosts and three-time winners New Zealand.

Special scrum-halves

Ever since his Test debut in 2012 New Zealand’s Aaron Smith has been considered one of the world’s leading scrum-halves.

But with his quick-feet and physical presence in close contact, Les Bleus’ No.9 and captain Antoine Dupont is widely regarded as one of the world’s best, regardless of position.

Whichever manages to impose his tempo on the game, especially at the base of the ruck, will likely give his side a winning platform.

Dupont’s half-back partner Matthieu Jalibert is backing his team-mate, the 2021 World Rugby player of the year, to outshine veteran Smith.

“He creates a lot of danger around him,” Jalibert said on Thursday. “He’s someone who is very precious for us, be that on the defensive side of things or in attack.”

Two playmakers

Both sides are fielding a full-back used to playing at fly-half and controlling a game.

France’s Thomas Ramos has worn the No.10 shirt often for club Toulouse while the All Blacks’ Beauden Barrett spent two years as his country’s first choice in that position.

Even when starting from 15, the quick-thinking Barrett is able to interchange with fly-half Richie Mo’unga and take over playmaking duties with ease.

It’s a role that the composed Ramos can also fulfil for France, meaning both sides will bring an element of unpredictability to their attack on Friday night in Paris.

“They play a bit like us, with the 10-15 combination which allows you to have two playmakers,” Jalibert said.

“It’s either Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett, they’re two talented players who can make the difference, be that with ball in hand or off the foot. They have exceptional vision,” he added.

Two sevens

New Zealand coach Ian Foster has decided to start captain Sam Cane and Dalton Papali’i as his two flankers for the game, both specialist opensides.

Both are superb at securing turnovers but their abilities to carry fail to match up to their opponents Francois Cros and Charles Ollivon.

Veteran Cane and 25-year-old Papali’i, who will make his World Cup debut, could have a big impact on the game if they manage to slow France’s possession down.

Additionally their workrate across the park and their tackling will be crucial to stopping France’s powerful ball carriers, not just Cros and Ollivon but also prop Uini Atonio and No.8 Gregory Alldritt.