The 4 million people of New Zealand slept easier last night, knowing that the first hurdle of their Rugby World Cup had been cleared in some style.
The All Blacks had some luck at the start of the match as they withstood strong pressure from Les Bleus. In the first five minutes Morgan Parra, the scrumhalf playing his first match as a flyhalf, ran well and had a drop goal attempt bounce back off the upright, which All Black fullback Israel Dagg did well to wrestle from the huge French no. 8, Louis Picamoles, under the posts on his own line. From ensuing play, French scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili kicked long to his left wing where Damien Traille and Cory Jane clashed as they contested the high ball with the line open. It appeared that Traille may have taken the ball first and Jane could have been penalised for a dangerous mid-air tackle, but the referee waved play on.
After eight minutes, the game changed. From their first sustained possession, All Black halfback Piri Weepu found a small gap beside the ruck to break the advantage line. Second five-eighths Ma’a Nonu steamed onto the ball in a powerful forty metre run, the All Blacks found quick ball again, and quick hands from Dan Carter in particular put no. 8 Adam Thomson over in the corner. Carter missed the conversion but the French were rocked.
The All Blacks were quickly at it again. From a lineout, Weepu took the ball in and popped a beautifully delayed pass up for Cory Jane, who waltzed through the French line and then went around fullback Traille as if he wasn’t there to score in the corner. This time, Carter added the extras for 12-0 after 17 minutes.
A third try came from a typically smooth run from Carter, who revelled in the space allowed to him all game – probably due to the lack of defensive combination from the out-of-position Parra and the men around him. It was hooker Dimitri Szarzewski who was trying to fill the backline hole this time though, and Carter eased around him before feeding the supporting Dagg on his inside for a try that looked simple. 19-0 with only twenty-one minutes on the clock, the crowd was delirious, and the French team were shell-shocked.
The rest of the first half contained a few more line breaks from New Zealand, before Yachvili put France on the board with a penalty kick after he was elbowed by Jerome Kaino while chasing a kick. 19-3 at half time and France had to be the first to score after the break; but instead it was the All Blacks who again put their stamp on the game.
Sonny Bill Williams, who replaced Jane on the wing late in the first half, came into the midfield and made a beautiful offload in the tackle to open the French defence up again. From the ensuing ruck on the French line, Israel Dagg put on a huge step and skipped through from five metres for his second try. Carter again made the conversion for 26-3, after forty two minutes.
The game began to meander a little following this further stamp of authority. Carter kicked a penalty for 29-3 after 47 minutes, then threw a loopy long midfield pass that French inside centre Maxime Mermoz took skilfully and ran in for an intercept try and 29-10. Carter then seemed to grow bored and with New Zealand hot on attack and cutting plenty of holes in the French defence, kicked the fourth international drop goal of his career. Plenty of replacements for both sides meant some structure went out of the match.
The final spurt of action came with around five minutes to go. France attacked fiercely, were held up over the line, and won a penalty from the ensuing scrum. As the referee spoke to New Zealand captain Richie McCaw and prop Tony Woodcock, replacement flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc tapped the penalty and crossed the try line. There was a hold up and some confusion, as the referee had not seemed to restart play and the two All Blacks had not been allowed to retire; but after a delay the try was awarded to France. Yachvili, whose place kicking was superb again, converted to make it 32-17 with five minutes left on the clock.
That seemed to spark the All Blacks into life, and they hit back directly from the kick off. Carter hit the same short kick that the French had dealt well with all night, but this time they misjudged it and lock Ali Williams took the ball superbly on the run. Without breaking stride he drew a defender and set loose replacement Colin Slade on the left wing. He was brought down short of the line but the All Blacks spun the ball wide right quickly and Sonny Bill Williams was the extra man who touched down in the corner. One final show of superiority from the All Blacks; 37-17 the final score.
The margins in this match were small but the end result showed which team was slightly ahead in most aspects. The All Blacks were quicker to the breakdown, where McCaw and Thomson were huge. Also notable in this aspect was the work of the All Black backs; when the French made a line break, it often resulted in a turnover as the first tackler and also the next man to arrive, would quickly spring up and try to rip the ball free, resulting in several turn-overs and penalties.
The cover defence from New Zealand was superb and many times when the French had an overlap, the inside men worked hard enough to get across and make the tackle. The scrum was heavily contested and both sides won penalties, but overall the All Blacks will have been happier with the outcomes in that area too. The All Black forwards overall will feel that they out-muscled their opponents, with some heavy defensive hits and good charges on attack – Jerome Kaino and Brad Thorn were outstanding in this area.
Questions will remain about how much the French wanted to win this match. They now face a quarter final against England or Scotland, and then a potential semi final against Ireland or Wales; all familiar opponents, although they will not fancy England first up. On the other side, the All Blacks should face Argentina or Scotland, then a likely semi against tri-nations foes South Africa or Australia. Potentially this match could be repeated in the final; if so, the All Blacks will certainly draw confidence from this result.