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France live up to expectations after condemning the All Blacks to another unwanted ‘first’ at RWC 2023

France live up to expectations after condemning the All Blacks to another unwanted ‘first’ at RWC 2023
Damian Penaud celebrates after scoring a try in the Rugby World Cup 2023 opening match against the All Blacks. (Photo: Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

Les Bleus made the perfect start to Rugby World Cup 2023 in Paris with a comfortable victory over New Zealand in the opening match.

France 27 (9) New Zealand 13 (8)

Opponents have been put on notice, and the French public received the perfect shot of hope, as a clinical French team eased past the All Blacks in an error-strewn Rugby World Cup 2023 opener at a sweltering Stade de France stadium. 

Les Bleus were comfortably the better team as they ran out 27-13 winners, despite being rocked back by a Mark Telea try in the second minute. Roared on by a hugely partisan crowd, they underlined their status as pre-tournament favourites. 

It was the perfect start to the tournament and has set the tone for what promises to be a superb seven weeks of rugby.

To cap it off, Antoine Dupont’s team delivered on their promise, while never fully hitting their straps. That is ominous because there is more to come from this French side.

The confusing opening ceremony, which promised “a poetic and colourful journey, through a story of romance and brotherhood” was fun, twee and somehow appropriate. 

The heckling and booing of French President Emmanuel Macron that followed, added a needed edge to what had been a party atmosphere for crowds in and around Stade de France. And the stifling heat conditions only added to the atmosphere of the night, which straddled hostility and fun, but never dipped over into the former. 

All Black wing Will Jordan (on the ground) takes out French fullback Thomas Ramos during the opening match of RWC 2023 at Stade de France. (Photo: Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

Delivering on their promise 

To cap it off, Antoine Dupont’s team delivered on their promise, while never fully hitting their straps. That is ominous because there is more to come from this French side. 

The conditions made it difficult, and both sides spilled several passes. But the sweltering heat also meant the fitter team would prevail and France scored 10 unanswered points in the final quarter.

“I said before the game, the one who was going to win was the one who was going to play for 80 minutes, and I think we played well for 80 minutes. It’s a great night for us,” France No 8 Grégory Alldritt said after the match.

But that mattered little to the vocal 78,900 crowd, mostly French, who hissed and cursed every call South African referee Jaco Peyper made that went against the home team.

Whether the All Blacks have more to give is debatable. Captain Sam Cane was pulled out on the morning of the match, after suffering a back spasm when in a lineout drill during the captain’s run. It forced a reshuffle and robbed the All Blacks of some breakdown presence. 

The All Blacks had never lost a Pool stage game in 31 previous outings at the World Cup. That is now gone – another unwanted first in the Ian Foster regime. 

Two weeks ago the All Blacks suffered a record 35-7 defeat against the Springboks. Last year they lost a home series to Ireland for the first time, and the year before that they lost at home against the Pumas for the first time. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Brutal Boks hand All Blacks heaviest ever Test defeat at Twickenham to make RWC statement

New Zealand Rugby’s decision to effectively fire Foster, but keep him on until after this tournament, is clearly not working. 

But that mattered little to the vocal 78,900 crowd, mostly French, who hissed and cursed every call South African referee Jaco Peyper made that went against the home team. 

While the fans may have been anxious – this was after all a huge moment for French rugby – the 15 men on the field never seemed overly rattled.

Despite early scares, when All Black centre Rieko Ioane carved a hole through the defence with the first move of the game, France rolled with the punches. 

From a penalty following Ioane’s break, Beauden Barrett’s clever cross-field kick found Telea, who dotted unopposed in the corner. Stade, thick with heat and sweat after a 38-degree day, fell silent.

French rugby fans celebrate during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Pool A match between France and New Zealand at Stade de France on 8 September in Paris. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

The worst kind of guests 

New Zealand threatened, as they always have, to be the worst kind of guests and ruin the hosts party. 

But Les Bleus demonstrated that all the hype poured on this team was justified. They calmly stuck to their gameplan of kicking from anywhere in their own half to turn the All Blacks, and backed their set piece and breakdown to build pressure.

“It was a bit of an up-and-down game, we had trouble getting into it, maybe because of the pressure of the opening match, at home etc,” Dupont acknowledged afterwards. 

“The All Blacks put us under a lot of pressure at the rucks. We stayed calm and worked hard throughout the match and, above all, finished well.”  

The French pack won the tight exchanges, New Zealand’s scrum buckled and their lineout struggled. The pressure mounted. Three first-half penalties from the polished Thomas Ramos edged the home side ahead 9-8 at the break, after Richie Mo’unga had landed a penalty for the All Blacks as well. 

Despite the slender lead, French fans know from experience that the All Blacks are never dead. The tension hung in the air, so the crowd burst into spontaneous renditions of La Marseillaise to rally the team. 

When that didn’t work, the sight of almost the entire stadium bouncing up and down singing “if you’re not jumping, you’re not French” was magnificent and inspiring. 

Second-half success 

After the break, New Zealand again stunned the home side when they broke the line thanks to a clever chip kick, which wing Will Jordan collected. The recycled ball went to Mo’unga, who threw what looked like a forward pass to Telea. The impressive wing took at his feet and scored in the corner. 

Peyper didn’t appear to ask for confirmation if the pass was forward and it stood. Stade de France exploded in a froth of anger at the injustice of it all.

On the field though, the French simply gathered under the sticks, with captain Dupont speaking calmly. The game was still on. The All Blacks were under pressure.

France kept at it, kicking, probing and forcing the All Blacks back. In the first half, New Zealand’s kicking game was on par with France’s, but as the heat sapped energy, exhausting limbs and minds, the mistakes mounted.

The French Air Force show during the opening ceremony, prior to the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between France and New Zealand at Stade de France on 8 September. (Photo: Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

France down the right 

France fashioned space down the right, with the irrepressible Damian Penaud charging for the corner and seemingly sure to score. Mo’unga came from nowhere to make a wonderful tackle. That could’ve been a catalyst to spur on the All Blacks from their increasingly back-foot position. But it wasn’t. 

Minutes later, flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert jinked and stepped into a tiny pocket of space that attracted two defenders, and he put Penaud away with a deft score, giving France the lead. 

Jordan was then yellow-carded for taking Ramos out in a contest for the high ball. That was the death knell for the All Blacks. 

Ramos kicked another penalty and the All Blacks were forced deeper and deeper. 

New Zealand’s pack was increasingly beaten, their shape on attack had all but disappeared, and defending with one fewer man gave France all the inspiration they needed. 

When Melvyn Jaminet finished a sweeping move on 78 minutes, it was over. Stade exploded in relief and joy.

Les Bleus are the benchmark at the tournament. DM

Scorers:

France: Tries: Damian Penaud, Melvyn Jaminet. Conversion: Ramos. Penalties: Ramos (5)

New Zealand: Tries: Mark Telea (2). Conversion: Richie Mo’unga. Penalty: Mo’unga 

Craig Ray’s accommodation and travel for the opening RWC 2023 weekend is courtesy of MultiChoice.

 

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