SWANSEA, 15 Oct - New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has laid down the challenge to a France side that he believes lacks the flair of years gone by.

A genuine lover of the traditional style of French rugby and hugely respectful of coach Philippe Saint-Andre, Hansen reckons the dour nature of French rugby's domestic league - the Top 14 - has rubbed off on the national team.

However, in a bid to offset his criticism, the former Wales coach has warned his players to beware the unexpected when the sides meet under the Millennium Stadium roof on Saturday night.

"From a rugby point of view, France have always had great athletes," said Hansen. "Their game was built around flair in the backs and real physicality up front. I'm not sure it's the same flair they have now.

"The Top 14 has become quite a dour competition with a lot of physicality and I know they are trying to recapture that flair.

Four changes

"You can see it is there and when they let loose, it's definitely there. We will be expecting them to come out and play with flair and physicality."

Hansen has made four changes to the side that defeated Tonga, in Newcastle, in their final pool game last Friday. Wyatt Crockett, Brodie Retallick, Richie McCaw and Julian Savea step in at the expense of injured prop Tony Woodcock, lock Luke Romano, openside fanker Sam Cane and wing Waisake Naholo.

The 988 caps of experience present in the starting XV makes Saturday's All Blacks' side the most experienced in a RWC knockout match, and the second most in any RWC match after the New Zealand starting team against Argentina earlier in this tournament.

With an average age of 29 years and 254 days, the starting XV is also New Zealand's second oldest after the team which started against the Pumas.

Still, there are no concerns for Hansen, in terms of the ageing nature of his side. Far from it. He said: "The thing your old players bring you, if they're in form, and our players are in form, is experience. You can't buy that.

Excitement and ambition

"When you are under the pump, you need people in that group who can cope with it.

"We have Conrad Smith and Richie McCaw who have great, great rugby brains. They have been in places that some of the younger players haven't been.

"So, when it gets a little iffy, as it does in every game, those guys are hugely important to you. I have never been one to worry how old you are, as long as their form is good, you have to pick them."

Although the All Blacks rarely show their emotion ahead of examinations like this, there was a genuine feeling of excitement and ambition among the players at Thursday's media conference. Hansen's role this week has been to temper that excitement and provide his squad with calm surroundings.

"You have to keep a lid on it," Hansen said. "There is no point me getting over excited and not doing my job right. It's about building for the weekend and when we need to get really excited and have fun, we will.

Defy odds

"Saturday is the fun part of the week. Sunday to Friday are work days. You don't want to be wound up like a clock on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, or even on your day off on Wednesday.

"You want to be building quietly and getting the clarity of how you want to play. Then, you start to build the intensity later in the week. That's what we are trying to do."

Despite his criticism of the Top 14, Hansen has warned his players to be on their guard after RWC defeats in 1999 and 2007. After all, the memory of eight years ago, when France defied the odds to beat the All Blacks, at the same stage, on the same pitch, has never gone. He said: "They have obviously picked their team on form and what they think will do the most damage against us. You've got to respect it."

Hansen highlighted Wesley Fofana (pictured) as a genuine threat to his side's progress and took time out to lavish praise on the redoubtable France openside flanker Thierry Dusautoir. He said: "He is one of the great players of all time.

"If there wasn't a certain Richie McCaw running around during that same period, Dusautoir would probably be seen as the guy who has played the best rugby in that position over a long period of time.

"He is calculated, cool under pressure and has a smart rugby brain on him. He is also a good man and a good character who plays the game in the right spirit.

"He is a great ambassador for French rugby."

RNS gc/svw