This was a poor, disjointed and very disappointing match. As unlikely as it may have seemed, everything that Peter Bilge blustered about came to pass.
Bilge proclaimed that the match would be a farce, and it was. While the grumpy hack had based his opinion on Marc Lievremont’s selection, it was the performance of France that made his prediction come to fruition.
Henry’s Wingless Wonders – they played about fifty minutes with four centres on the pitch – were rarely troubled by an anaemic French effort after the first ten minutes. In a nod to fairness, it should be mentioned that les Bleus started at a hell of a lick and looked to have the Kiwis in some trouble. An early drop-goal effort from Morgan Parra hit the post, and they should have had a penalty five metres out when Cory Jane tackled Damien Traille in the air as the big French utility back claimed a cross-kick. Inexplicably, referee Alain Rolland failed to penalise him. In the words of pretty much every Sky Sports Premiership commentator, I’ve seen ‘em given.
Maxime Mermoz had a good cut through midfield to get inside the New Zealand 22, but the French scrum looked to be having trouble with the Kiwis. Tony Woodcock in particular seems to have gotten the better of French tighthead Ducalcon, who had an underwhelming game. The French purple patch was over before the tenth minute, Ma’a Nonu cutting a line between the inept tackling of Louis Picamoles and Julien Bonnaire on halfway and setting up the ruck near the line from which Dan Carter’s quick hands allowed Adam Thomson to get over in the left corner.
For the most part though, the French looked listless and witless. They showed a lack of urgency which had to be seen to be believed: in one passage alone in the first half, Dmitri Yachvili, Morgan Parra and Aurelien Rougerie all had kicks blocked down or partially blocked down. Ridiculous stuff. Too many times good players missed easy tackles on Kiwis, and the likes of Dmitri Szarzewski and Luc Ducalcon could well have seen their last action in this World Cup.
There were countless individual errors evident in the French performance. Damien Traille wasn’t capable of taking and giving a pass at full speed to Vincent Clerc that would have put him in acres of space down the touchline, instead getting crunched by a narrow Richard Kahui – that’s at about the 15:30 mark if you’re re-watching the game.
In contrast, the New Zealanders consistently showed world-class skills. Cory Jane’s try was probably most noticeable for the appalling defensive effort made by Maxime Medard [and Dmitri Szarzewski and Louis Picamoles], but Piri Weepu’s dummy is outstanding. Coming around the back of a line-out on the peel, he shapes to throw a flat pass to his outside backs with a big backswing, but instead holds on to it a fraction of a second longer and pops it up to Jane, putting him through the hole – perfect execution. Still, that’s first phase defense.
Israel Dagg’s try also came too easily. Ducalcon slipped over on his arse and Picamoles didn’t bother his, allowing Dan Carter through a gap to send Dagg cantering over between the sticks. Carter’s conversion put New Zealand 19-0 up before twenty-two minutes and effectively ended the game as a contest. Appalling stuff.
It can’t be overstated just how good Carter is, nor how important he is to his team. Just before halftime, for example, he rips the ball off Louis Picamoles in contact … obviously a black mark against the French No8, but great work from Carter! With that said, there was an awful lot to like about the whole New Zealand team’s performance. They ran hard, tackled hard, rucked hard and played hard all over the pitch … they were simply playing at a different intensity to France.
The Demon Headmaster gave his pupils an 8 but there are still a few areas where they must try harder. Sur Rutchie packed down at 8 for NZ scrums. Keiran Read has yet to play in this World Cup and will add a lot to this team. It’s conceivable that each All Black is considered an interchangable part of a well oiled machine but Read is a few steps up from Adam Thomson. He’ll make an impact on his return. Piri Weepu didn’t convince me at scrum half. He’s got that Kiwi halfback habit of sniping up blind alleys and getting tackled, slowing down the rhythm of the side. His passing is technically poor. Jimmy Cowan at 9 gets the most from the talented backs outside him. Whitelock in the second row is a puzzling selection and Ali Williams seems to offer far more when he’s on the pitch. NZ have very little blinding out and out pace in the team. The decision to bring glug-glug-Guildford to the tournament at the expense of Hosea Gear, then not play him, is mystifying. Henry has selected very conservatively for this tournament and seems to prize the ability to create, identify and exploit mismatches above all else. Take a look at the amount of breaks the NZ backline make and then who they make them against. Typically its between the members of the opposition’s front five.
France were a shambles. Dusautoir’s interview afterwards was shifty and apologetic and the players seem to lack direction. There’s no doubt in Mole Towers that this is down to Lièvremont. His lack of discernible tactics and his poor management have scuppered any chance Les Bleus may have had. Mole’s squad preview was uncertain about what France would show up. Lièvremont seems to have united the squad against him but there is nothing else cohesive about this group and they do not look happy. An unhappy, dispirited squad has no chance of winning this tournament, regardless of talent. The men that appointed this coach have some hard questions to answer.