Rugby: All Blacks have just enough substance

By Gregor Paul

All Blacks 14 France 10

No one in New Zealand should be daft enough to lament the lack of style on a night that was all about substance.

Last night was an exercise in avoidance - of defeat, humiliation and an unwelcome place in the history books.

It didn't matter how this inexperienced All Black side crossed the line.

They could bite, spit, wrestle, duck, dive, cheat, cheat some more and not provide one memorable passage of football - all that mattered was that they won.

Which they did, just, by firstly turning up from the start which they didn't last week and secondly by holding their structure and composure for long enough to hold out a French side that was probably more capable.

If there was a performance goal it was to harden up; to not, as they did in Dunedin, bring a knife to a gun fight.

There was a bit more clobber about them; a bit more snap in the physical exchanges but not enough for them to get the momentum they were after.

A little bit more turnover ball was snaffled; the scrummaging was a bit more solid and the number of embarrassing tries leaked was cut from two to one - hardly ideal but progress none the less.

Cory Jane and Mils Muliaina will find it hard to watch the footage that will show Cedric Heymans beating them both for pace and two others on his way to a spectacular solo try mid-way through the second half.

It was a score that brought France back into a game they were in danger of slipping out of after Ma'a Nonu coasted over in the first half courtesy of a neat Tanerau Latimer off-load that pushed Joe Rokocoko clear before feeding the looping second five.

The All Blacks would have loved to have pushed on from Nonu's score and settled into a better, more fluent rhythm but it never happened. The width couldn't be found, the holes didn't open around the fringes and it was bash, bash with only Keven Mealamu able to make any real hard yards.

That lack of fluency and penetration needs to be looked at and the selectors' faith in Donald will be wavering and the angst building about what they should do come the Tri Nations. Donald, clearly playing to orders persisted with dinky kicks over the top, presumably designed to discourage the French rush defence.

It wasn't a bad idea and nor was his execution a particular problem.

It was just that as the game developed it became harder to be convinced Donald wasn't playing by numbers - kick two, run two, pass two.

The instinctive reading of the game was missing and when the pressure really comes in next month, there is a big fault line running through Donald that the Australians and South Africans will quite gladly stick a piece of dynamite in and blow wide open.

The real concern, though, was the lack of finesse. There was a quite seriously bad left-footed hoof on the stroke of half-time that had all the class of three-putting from six feet.

A couple of shocking forward passes and a kick-out on the full blighted his night further and the package was completed by losing the ball in a curious move where his intentions were never clear.

There is no question this was a difficult assignment. The weather had that unmistakable Wellington charm and the French continued to defend impressively, coming off the line quickly and aggressively.

But the realisation of last week was that tests are not meant to be easy; that their very essence is about taking players to the limit and asking them to find new depths of character.

Donald was by no means the only player to exit stage left unsure about whether he will be cast in the same role this week.

Joe Rokocoko, quiet all season, pressed the mute button again. There remains hope it is not permanent, but certainly there has been an extended temporary loss of spark and explosive power from the big wing.

The old Joe came alive for a test, thrust off his flank and left scorched earth behind.

The new Joe, the one we have seen this season, is more SUV than sports car. Last night he didn't attend to the basics and looked decidedly pedestrian. When Donald fly-hacked through after 50 minutes of the three men chasing - Donald, Maxime Medard and Rokocoko - the All Black wing was a distant third.

It has maybe reached the point where shock therapy is the solution - the indignity of being left out of the Tri Nations squad and asked to earn his passage back to the test arena should stoke some fires and instigate a change in attitude and desire.

That same shock therapy could be used on Neemia Tialata who again was all at sea against a French front-row that would be one of the more streetwise in world rugby.

New Zealand 14 (M. Nonu try; S. Donald 2 pens; L. McAlister pen) France 10 (C. Heymans try; J. Dupuy con; F. Trinh-Duc pen).

- NZ Herald

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