All Blacks sweep France

By Gregor Paul in New Plymouth

Ben Smith crosses over for All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Smith crosses over for All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand 24
France 9

This winning ugly business is getting to be a habit for the All Blacks. No one should really mind that, but it's hard not feel just a touch deflated with the way the All Blacks played tonight.

They wanted to build on what they delivered in Christchurch. They absolutely didn't. They wanted to marry their kicking and running games - the relationship looked like a bad first date.

It was like watching someone under-skilled trying to peel a potato with a blunt knife - there was a lot of hacking and wastage, a constant fear the outcome wasn't going to be great - and then ultimately relief that the job was done.

What was left by the end..? it's hard to be sure. A win - and a series clean sweep. Both important especially as the French came to New Plymouth with a surprising energy and appetite for the battle.

Only the truly misguided will have seen this lot as a second string offering - this is the top crew in France and those players who were left behind, well they were left behind for a reason - the French finished last in the Six Nations.

So the All Blacks will take the time to celebrate their achievement. They will also know, however, that they came up short on many of their own expectations. The unforgivable part was the shoddy basic skills that couldn't be lamed - as they had been at Eden Park - on first game rust. Too much ball was dropped, too many passes dipped and faded and the general protection of possession was missing. Bad again was the drop in intensity - so good in Christchurch, so obviously not at the same level last night.

Defensively the All Blacks were not the same team - their linespeed, their numbers, their technique, their structure were all just that little bit lacking.

A few scrums went badly awry - as in France put on a squeeze and got just rewards for it. There was nothing disastrous or bad enough to lie awake tonight worrying about - but that's not really the parameters by which this side are measured.

They are all about improvement from week to week, about enhancing their execution and flow - about getting the big and the little things right. They want to be the world's standard setters in the basic and the intricacies - which they definitely weren't last night.
What they could take some comfort in was the work rate of both Luke Romano and Sam Whitelock. Those two were perpetual motion - willing ball carriers and general dogs-bodies for chores that not everyone fancies.

Ma'a Nonu now that he has realised that he can kick - and that no one felt it was a terrible idea when he did - seems to have rather admirably taken it upon himself to do more. He took the driver to one when a mid-range iron would have been the better choice, but while his long repertoire may still be a little dubious, his short game is excellent.

He dinked a nasty, bobbler behind the French on the stroke of half-time that would have delivered a try had Conrad Smith been able to get it fully, rather not quite under control.

He's a funny beast Nonu - coming into the series as someone supposedly riding his luck and ending it looking every inch the world's best second-five. It's a magic trick he's done before, but still, it doesn't lose its ability to frustrate, impress and captivate.

Israel Dagg was the other man on a goodwill rather than good form ticket, and while he hasn't transformed himself to the same spectacular effect as Nonu, he did again put in a performance that said much, if maybe not all, is right in his world again.

It's easy to be flippant about the value of a fullback who can get himself into the right position to pluck the ball out the sky for 80 minutes. That skill really matters: it mattered last night and will probably matter more during the Rugby Championship.

At some stage Dagg will erupt, jig and wiggle his way to something incredible - but he shouldn't be admonished for not having done much of that this series.

He probably represents the bigger picture - he was good, sometimes not and just a touch frustrating because everyone knows he's capable of a little better.

New Zealand 24 (B. Smith, B. Barrett tries; D. Carter 4 pens, con) France 9 (J. Doussain 2 pens; F. Fritz drop goal)

- Herald on Sunday

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