FRANCE 27 ALL BLACKS 13
By Liam Napier in Paris
Advantage France. On a steamy, sweltering World Cup opening Parisian night, Stade de France roared and rocked with 80,000 often on their feet, in full voice throughout, as France laid down a psychological marker to inflict the first group stage defeat on the All Blacks.
Set against the backdrop of their worst defeat in history against the Springboks at Twickenham, and a series of injury setbacks that included captain Sam Cane withdrawing pre-match, the All Blacks went toe-to-toe with one of the World Cup favourites only to wilt in the second half to suffer their first World Cup pool defeat in 32 matches.
The elaborate opening ceremony featured the Webb Ellis Cup sitting atop the makeshift Eiffel Tower. It would be a stretch to suggest France are now one step closer to achieving that feat for the first time. This victory will, though, fuel their belief and that of their nation who, for good reason, dare to dream with eyes wide open.
Any suggestions of the burden of home expectation weighing heavy can be dismissed, for now.
In the context of this World Cup campaign, this loss is far from terminal for the All Blacks. Their path to the defining quarter-final juncture always went through Italy. Nothing changes there. Defeat will, though, test shaken confidence and inner belief. The All Blacks will, however, regain influential troops in the coming weeks.
Discipline was one majoring failing for the All Blacks, after conceding 12 penalties to France’s four. They also kicked away a continuous stream of possession even when chasing the match and lost the aerial battle.
A maiden World Cup pool-stage defeat is more unwanted history for Ian Foster’s All Blacks, too, after their first home-series loss to Ireland; the first home loss of any kind to Argentina and the heaviest defeat to South Africa.
Locals jeered Jaco Peyper’s calls. They rode every kick – of which there were many – tackle, breakout, and penalty to form a feverish atmosphere.
France weren’t exceptional but they grew after leading 9-8 at half time and they never let up. When replacement Melvyn Jaminet scored late, the blue and white party really started. And it continued long after the final whistle.
For all the hype and anticipation you wouldn’t call this match an instant classic with its kick-heavy tactics and frequent mistakes. It was gripping, though, with multiple lead changes and compelling tension.
Two second-half moments swung the match in France’s favour. Richie Mo’unga pulled off a try-saving tackle on Damian Penaud but the All Blacks could not deny the French wing again.
Will Jordan’s yellow card for a clumsy challenge on fullback Thomas Ramos then allowed France to pull six points clear. From there, France never looked back.
Amid the deflating defeat there were bright spots for the All Blacks with Mark Telea claiming two tries to open each half.
After his early dismissal at Twickenham, Scott Barrett was back to his best, punching holes in the middle of the park, snaffling breakdown turnovers and restarts while defending like a demon.
Rieko Ioane injected his presence with regular involvement to palm off defenders and assume the midfield ball-carrying responsibility in Jordie Barrett’s absence.
On this occasion, those individual efforts weren’t nearly enough, though. Successive defeats to France – after their 2021 loss at the same venue – served a timely reminder of the ground the All Blacks must make up on world rugby’s elite nations, of which France are clearly one.
French No 8 Gregory Alldritt led the way for the locals, consistently asserting his powerhouse presence on the contest.
Already without starting forwards Shannon Frizell, Tyrel Lomax and influential second five-eighths Barrett, the All Blacks suffered another setback with captain Cane pulling out with back spasms.
Cane’s absence forced a major reshuffle that involved Dalton Papali’i switching to openside, Tupou Vaa’i starting his first test at blindside flanker, Brodie Retallick coming onto the bench to make an earlier than expected return from his knee injury, and Ardie Savea assuming the leadership mantle.
In an attempt to quell the passionate locals the All Blacks had to start well – and they did. Ioane punched the perfect line to lay the platform for Beauden Barrett’s cross field kick to send Telea over inside 90 seconds.
Frequent mistakes then set in, though.
The All Blacks missed their clean from the kickoff to allow France to strike back through Thomas Ramos, who nailed three first-half penalties. Mo’unga missed touch from a penalty, Barrett threw a forward pass, the All Blacks lost one lineout, Ethan de Groot endured a difficult time by conceding two scrum penalties and dropping a carry with his team hot on attack.
France were far from perfect, either, reflecting the nervous tension.
The All Blacks rode through their errors and adversity to largely dominate the first half. On several occasions they found space on the edges to surge into France’s half and string together phases. Those opportunities were often squandered, though, with the last pass or finishing accuracy lacking.
Reflecting on those moments the All Blacks will regret failing to convert because when France got a roll on in the second half, they proved impossible to stop.
Once again, then, the All Blacks have their backs to the wall. They will be widely written off and, clearly, have it all to do. They’ve responded before – at Ellis Park last year.
Regrouping on this stage to defy the odds now requires monumental resolve.
France 29 (Damian Penaud, Melvyn Jaminet tries; Thomas Ramos two cons, five pens), All Blacks 13 (Mark Telea two tries; Richie Mo’unga penalty). Halftime: 9-8
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