JON CARDINELLI watched Dan Carter and New Zealand make a powerful statement in their 37-17 win over France at Eden Park.
It there was any doubt regarding the quality of this French side, it was dispelled in the minutes leading up to kickoff. The All Blacks delivered a passionate rendition of Kapa O Pango, the haka reserved for New Zealand’s most-respected opponents. The 60 000-strong crowd stood in silence as 22 men in black laid down the challenge as if they were making a promise.
There would be no repeat of the 2007 result in Cardiff. And come the end of this particular fixture, the French would be the ones left physically bruised and emotionally shattered.
Les Bleus responded to the impressive French support in the stands and dominated territory and possession in the first nine minutes. But the hosts managed to absorb that early pressure, and their superior scrum won them the penalty that would allow them to take play back into the French half.
What followed was the most synchronised and polished attacking performance by the All Blacks at this World Cup. New Zealand scored three tries in 12 minutes to establish a commanding 19-0 lead. They hammered the French at the collisions, and their chief decision makers marshalled the big black machine deeper and deeper into enemy territory. When the moment to strike arrived, they finished in style.
France failed to cut down the space of the All Blacks’ inside backs, and were duly punished. Piri Weepu probed at the space around the ruck while Dan Carter attacked the gain line with devastating results. The iconic No 10 showcased his many skills in this fixture, and what would have pleased the coaching staff was his ability to take the space afforded to him and turn it into a try-scoring opportunity.
Tactically, France were no match for New Zealand. Men like Weepu, Carter and Israel Dagg controlled the game through their precise kicking, and the All Blacks’ pack, spearheaded by the centurion Richie McCaw, ensured the backs continued to receive a great attacking platform. Carter also used the grubber to fracture France’s defensive line, and such was his sharp decision making and ability to call on a range of attacking skills that the opposition defence grew increasingly hesitant as the half progressed.
Ma’a Nonu had a stormer as did every other player in the All Blacks’ backline. The No 12 was abrasive and penetrative, and this performance would have solidified his place in the All Blacks’ side ahead of Sonny Bill Williams.
Dagg threatened every time he touched the ball and Richard Kahui’s contribution extended beyond that of a strike runner. Having played much of his rugby at outside centre, he showed his vision on more than one occasion to rush out of the line and make a momentum-stalling tackle. Along with his fellow backs, he took the fight to the French at the point of contact.
To their credit, France managed to compose themselves after conceding those three tries, and ended the half with a Dimitri Yachvilli penalty. The second quarter was marked by improved aggression at the collisions, although they never looked like crossing the All Blacks’ tryline.
That good work was undone when they leaked a try right after the break. Maxime Mermoz scored a runaway try in the 54th minute and Yachvilli kicked a difficult conversion to reduce the substantial deficit, but it would not signal the turning of the tide. While they sustained the forward effort of the second quarter, they struggle to stop the All Blacks’ backs from making metres in the wide channels.
The hosts were not as clinical in the second half, but Carter ensured that they maintained a healthy lead by kicking a penalty and a drop goal. The latter strike took the score to 32-10, and it was also a statement by a flyhalf, and a team, who are not typically associated with the drop goal. Come the play-offs, they will have the option of sinking teams in this manner. The other big teams should take note.
The result should see the All Blacks winning Pool A, but so much more was gained from a big win over an old foe. After delivering some uninspiring and erratic showings during the early stages of the tournament, the All Blacks have finally started to find form. The collective is starting to fire, and their individuals, most notably Carter, are starting to cook.