In a match most fans would have been salivating over since the World Cup draw was announced, New Zealand put in a comprehensive display of rugby in beating France 37-17 in Auckland. STYLI CHARALAMBOUS reviews the match.
It’s not often that the build-up to a test match not featuring the Springboks would generate goosebumps; however, as a neutral fan – although one secretly willing a French upset – this was the biggest match of the pool stages of this RWC, laden with history and subplots galore.
France’s controversial knockout of the All Blacks in the 2007 tournament, and Lazarus-like comeback in the ’99 event, still cut New Zealanders deep and probably account for most of the shrinks’ turnover in the rugby-mad nation. So, with the opportunity to atone for the mishaps in front of a home crowd, the All Blacks would have been planning every fine detail of this match for years in advance.
There was also a historical significance to this encounter. France were the last team to beat the Kiwis at Eden Park, back in 1994, and this match would see talismanic captain Richie McCaw become the first All Black to achieve 100 international caps. Reasons enough to see why this match attracted the largest TV audience, and international interest, of any pool games to date.
If there was any doubt about how much this match meant to New Zealand, those reservations would have been dispelled by a brand-new version of the Haka that was performed with ferocious intensity, accompanied by wide-eyed motions of throat-slitting.
Photo: New Zealand All Blacks’ Man-of-the-Match Israel Dagg scores a try during their Rugby World Cup Pool A match against France at Eden Park in Auckland September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Nigel Marple
If anything, that performance of the Haka spurred France on to a fervent first ten minutes of the match. Controlling the early exchanges with territorial and possessive dominance, France almost took the lead with a drop goal from diminutive flyhalf Morgan Parra that hit the upright and almost bounced into the hands of a charging set of French players, before a calm Israel Dagg managed to move the ball out of harm’s way.
Soaking up the French pressure, the All Blacks revelled in the pace of the match, which seemed to play into the hands of the home team. The first try came after nine minutes when Adam Thompson rounded off a move in the corner, and sparked an eleven-minute period where the All Blacks crossed the try line two more times, through a Cory Jane set-piece try, and the first of two Israel Dagg tries for the evening. With 20 minutes gone, the All Blacks were 19-0 to the good and it looked like hiding was on the cards for the French. A Dimitri Yachvilli penalty got the visitors off the dreaded bagel, and they went into the break trailing 19-3.
Things didn’t look like getting any better in the second half, as Israel Dagg scored his brace within seconds of the restart. But France dug deep to stem the All Black assault on their try line for the next 35 minutes, a period that included an intercept try of their own through centre Maxime Mermoz. A Dan Carter penalty and drop-goal kept the points differential far enough apart to quash any French thoughts of a repeat of the 1999 semi-final.
Photo: Former New Zealand All Blacks captain Jock Hobbs shakes hands with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw (L) after presenting him with his 100th test cap at the end of their Rugby World Cup Pool A match against France at Eden Park in Auckland September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Phil Walter
A controversial score by the French near the All Black’s line, taken quickly while the referee Alain Rolland seemed to be lecturing the Kiwi players, saw substitute Trinh-Duc cross to add some measure of respectability to the scoreboard. But the instant reply by Sonny Bill Williams saw the All Blacks round off a great victory in front of a home crowd littered with vocal French support.
Israel Dagg capped a great evening on the park with two well-worked tries, a man-of-the-match award, and the opportunity to justify coach Graham Henry’s selection of the younger man ahead of the 98-match veteran Mils Muliaina.
The Kiwis will be sweating over a few injury concerns but will be happy with their overall performance today. Talk ahead of this game speculated over which half of the draw these two teams would prefer to take on in the play-off stages of the tournament. Some even suggested France wouldn’t be trying too hard to win this match and ensure a Northern Hemisphere-laden challenge in the knock-out stages instead of one that could see them play either Australia or South Africa in the semi-final, should they progress that far.
On this performance the All Blacks will have sent a resounding warning out to other contenders that they are still the team to beat, keeping their proud record of never having lost a pool match in the RWC intact. But it’s not the pool stages that New Zealand has struggled with, rather the pressure cooker of the next phase of the tournament. Next up for the All Blacks are the poor Canadians, who aren’t likely to offer much resistance before the home team looks to the quarterfinals, where their opponents are yet to be decided. England, Scotland and Argentina have yet to finalise their Pool B standings, but none of them would be looking forward to fronting up to the All Blacks on the back of Saturday’s performance. DM
For New Zealand:
Tries: Thomson, Jane, Dagg (2), SB Williams
Cons: Carter (3)
Tries: Mermoz, Trinh-Duc
Cons: Yachvili (2)
15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Richard Kahui, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Anthony Boric, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.
15 Damien Traille, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Pascale Papé, 4 Lionel Nallet, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 William Servat, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Imanol Harinordoquy, 20 Francois Trinh-Duc, 21 Fabrice Estebanez, 22 Cédric Heymans.
Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Main photo: New Zealand All Blacks players perform the Haka before their Rugby World Cup Pool A match against France at Eden Park in Auckland September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Phil Walter
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