France 12-39 New Zealand, Marseille, November 28
Rampant All Blacks cement No.1 status
November 28, 2009
New Zealand skipper Richie McCaw gets his hands back on the Dave Gallaher Trophy in Marseille © Getty Images
It may not have been a vintage year for New Zealand but they will finish it where they began - as the world's best side.
The All Blacks may have already reclaimed the No.1 spot in the International Rugby Board rankings but it was this ruthless destruction of France that reminded the world where the balance of power currently resides. The team's critics suggested that this game would make or break their season and if that really was the case they could not have delivered a more emphatic answer. OK, the scrum creaked at times, but this was a majestic display that will have the rest of the world worried.
France played their part in a frantic opening and it was refreshing to see two sides giving the ball some air after so many of this month's clashes failed to deliver in terms of eye-catching entertainment - but sadly only one of them remembered to underwrite their expansive approach with a solid defensive performance. This match alone is unlikely to silence those who argue that the current laws are ruining the sport as a spectacle, but there appears little wrong with the game when two sides adopt a positive approach and produce such a thrilling game as these two giants did.
Man of the match Dan Carter delivered his latest master class from fly-half where he revelled in the freedom granted by France. The Crusaders star produced several moments of brilliance as he feasted on quick ball and in doing so he ran the hosts ragged. In fullback Mils Muliaina he had a willing an able cohort who balances the assurance and ability of a veteran with the enthusiasm of a rookie. His latest Test bow saw him become the second most-capped All Black of all-time behind former captain Sean Fitzpatrick and New Zealand coach Graham Henry will be taking great care of his prized talent between now and Rugby World Cup 2011.
Newly-crowned IRB Player of the Year Richie McCaw was another to rise to the challenge. The All Blacks captain, the only player to claim the IRB honour twice, refused to ease up on the bedraggled hosts, fighting for every inch at every ruck for the chance to inflict further pain right up until the final whistle. How France coach Marc Lievremont would love to have such warriors to call upon.
For all their attacking prowess, it is New Zealand's defensive qualities that offer promise of greater things this side. For the fourth match in a row they prevented their opponents from breaching their line and three of those games came against the northern hemisphere's finest in Wales, England and France. And they can proudly boast that they have not conceded a try in Europe since their shock Rugby World Cup 2007 exit at the hands of Les Bleus.
This result will be infuriating for Lievremont as he continues to build towards Rugby World Cup 2011 while deflecting the near-constant criticism levelled at him as a result of his rollercoaster fortunes. The victory over South Africa earlier this month was hailed as a significant marker for his side who had hinted at great things with a win in New Zealand in the summer. But this latest result, and more alarmingly the performance, illustrate that he has plenty of work to do.
France have never wanted for talented individuals and this current crop are no different with the likes of captain Thierry Dusautoir and wingers Maxime Medard and Vincent Clerc. But there remain question marks about the backbone of the team as a whole. They had no real answer to New Zealand's full frontal assault and it was a case of saving face long before the final whistle.
A side cannot miss as many tackles and defend as poorly as France did and not expect to be punished. Passion and heart will only get this side so far and once they had exhausted those resources there was only one side in this contest. Gone was the side that had impressed against the Springboks and Samoa and instead it was New Zealand, who had so far struggled to find top gear on tour, who finally remembered how to produce a breath-taking running game, punching holes at will and counter-attacking brilliantly.
Three clashes in the last six months will have provided plenty of food for thought for both sides with France evidently with the most work to do despite briefly ending New Zealand's monopoly of the Dave Gallaher Trophy. But there is a lot of rugby still to be played before they meet again in Pool 1 at RWC'11 and we all know that strange things can happen on the sport's biggest stage.
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