There was more girth, less hair but the same old passion from the Classic All Blacks (CABs) yesterday as they defeated their French counterparts 57-15 in Queenstown.
As the World Cup rumbled on, old cup rivalries were revived in front of 8000 people at Wakatipu Rugby Club when the CABs, including 13 past All Blacks, outscored France nine tries to three. Helping the CABs cause was the recruitment of 21-capped French centre Tony Marsh, presumably to decipher a few opposition moves.
At 28, the relative youth of Auckland's Jay Williams was another boost. Why was he in the team? Apparently, manager Andy Haden considered him too good a tourist to leave out.
The match had been touted as a chance for utu after the 1999 and 2007 All Blacks World Cup defeats. Only time, or perhaps a home World Cup victory, can heal those wounds but the spectacle showcased the skills that made the players famous. Jeff Wilson still glides menacingly on the right wing; Kees Meeuws loves running with the ball in hand; Andrew Mehrtens sniffs out gaps at three paces.
New observations were made too. Olo Brown lifted in the lineout for the first time, having not played in 13 years; Keith Lowen looks faster than in his heyday; Mehrtens has upped his defence a notch, leaving a couple of Frenchmen shuddering with big hits.
The French were not to be outdone. They threatened another 1994 Eden Park "try from the end of the world" with countless scissors and cut-out passes, bamboozling the CABs, and themselves. They also employed a comic book-type mystery hooker who spent the match with his face wrapped in a shroud of bandages. Perhaps it was heroic 1999 French skipper Raphael Ibanez in disguise ...
Support play wasn't a feature. Tackled players often spent an uncomfortable period waiting for the cavalry. Mauls were hit as intensely as a farmer leaning on a post admiring cattle. Still, there were chances for a breather at scrums and lineouts.
CABs skipper Reuben Thorne joked about the skill levels: "They were debatable, some sharper than others. We got to town yesterday, made up a few calls this morning before throwing the ball around. It's all been good fun."
Joie de vivre pervaded. Wilson spent the early moments shaking hands in the French backline while the opening golden oldies scrum was set. He was repaid with the opening try. The French entourage's La Marseillaise was exciting, as was the menu of rare beef, fresh bread and claret in their supporters' box.
The New Zealand fans also had their moments. Some wag draped a "Bring back Buck" banner across the fence. Given the opposition, Shelford was probably grateful not to be at the bottom of a ruck.
Coach Peter Sloane hoped it helped World Cup spirits in Queenstown. "Being based in Christchurch I know we haven't got anything so it's nice to be part of the cup, smelling the liniment, hearing the whistle, watching the boys run around. It was great to see guys like Cully [Christian Cullen] and Jeff [Wilson]. They've never lost it, even if they're a bit slower."