All Blacks: Pumped-up France deflate All Blacks

By Dylan Cleaver

All Blacks 22 France 27

Luke McAlister is going to learn to really hate the French.

It was his winged-duck, drop-goal attempt in Cardiff that best summed up a night of All Black futility two years ago and his welcome back to test rugby was rather spoiled when he handed the ball on to France fullback Maxime Medard who ran 70 glorious metres for the decisive try.

The man who was fast-tracked back into black following a stint at Sale might find this hard to brush off with a simple c'est la vie.

If there's an enduring image of this test other than Medard's weaving solo run, it was of four bedraggled All Blacks struggling off the turf after William Servat barrelled over them for France's second try. It was telling; France were pumped up, the All Blacks deflated.

This was a watershed test for the All Blacks - a glimpse at life post-Carter and McCaw. Throw in the absence of stalwarts Rodney So'oialo and Ali Williams, plus the emerging talent of Richard Kahui, and you had mitigating factors.

Adding to the intrigue was the return to the old rules and the rustiness associated with the first test of the winter. Perhaps we should not have been surprised the All Blacks were primed to be painted a shade of Les Bleus, or Blancs as the case was.

New Zealand does not have a bottomless pool of world-class talent. It has talent, aplenty, for sure, but with rare exceptions that only turns world-class once it has been forged in the fires of test rugby.

Assistant coach Steve Hansen said any country would struggle to replace the number of players New Zealand had lost offshore.

"This is the best team we could have picked. It's a young group and when you have a young group, you have to go through a bit of pain," said Hansen.

"In the first half, we didn't cope with their driving maul and we didn't cope with their physicality. We got ourselves back into the game and could easily have won. The guys deserve a bit of credit for that.

A fast start might have eased the nerves but it was the visitors, playing a test at Carisbrook for the first time, who hit the ground running.

Fulgence Ouedraogo showed nice athleticism in the lineout and when Andrew Hore pulled down a rolling maul, Julien Dupuy put the first points on the board.

The All Blacks started to assert themselves but nothing was easy. A Mils Muliaina-inspired breakout from deep came to nought after the French scrambled effectively.

Stephen Donald tied the scores from a soft penalty after he was hit late but then the wheels started to fall off a little.

Ma'a Nonu dropped it cold on his 22 and from the resultant scrum Francois Trinh-Duc, probably the first man of Vietnamese heritage to have played test rugby, benefited from first Keiran Read and Jimmy Cowan, then Liam Messam and Mils Muliaina, getting in each other's way.

But it wasn't so much the lead that would hurt Graham Henry and his mates, but the way the side were being bossed at the breakdown. France were more aggressive when they hit rucks and mauls and it flowed through to their backs who defended aggressively and attacked with purpose.

Massive Toulouse hooker Servat barrelled over to give France a 14-point lead and they had earned every one of them.

For the first half an hour, at least, they looked the better team: more cohesive, more battle-hardened, more likely to win.

Then, in a bounce of ball, it changed. After Donald landed his second penalty the All Blacks secured possession from the restart as the halftime siren sounded.

A clever Cowan kick looked odds-on to find French hands but that saying about an oval ball doing funny things came true and instead Cory Jane hared downfield with two defenders trying to cover three black-shirted men. Jane, only on the wing because Rudi Wulf was injured, measured the situation perfectly and put Messam into the corner.

It would have been sweet redemption for Messam who had chipped ahead but missed the tackle on Louis Picamoles and a few phases later Servat scored his try.

After the break, with the message to kick shallower and chase better, the All Blacks drew level through the boot of Donald.

France struggled to hang in there but they did. On a slippery field the All Blacks struggled to get any fluid back play and whenever play broke down France would counter-attack. On one of those rare forays Dupuy nudged France ahead again, setting up a grand finale.

A rousing All Black denouement? Non, this was France's night. Medard's run saw to that and not even a late Nonu try could ruin it.

New Zealand (L. Messam, M. Nonu tries; S. Donald 4 pens) France (F. Trinh-Duc, W. Servat, M. Medard tries; J. Dupuy 2 pens 2 cons). Ht: 11-17.

- Herald on Sunday

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