It was messy, it was brutal and at times it was awful. But a win is a win as they say, and that will be what the New Zealand All Blacks take from their 23-13 defeat of France on Saturday to go one up in their three-match series.
A flurry in the last 10 minutes of the first half proved decisive and saw the New Zealanders open up a gap that was never closed. During this period, the back line looked threatening, and breaks from Ben Smith and Ma’a Nonu were the catalysts for the only two tries the All Blacks would score.
Outside of this period though, the All Blacks played every bit like a team that had not played for six months. They looked rusty, made too many mistakes and never applied any real pressure on France.
France were much the same. Although they looked dangerous at times and were quick to the breakdown, they also made too many mistakes to mount any real pressure.
The game was dominated by scrum resets, which chewed up a lot of time in the second half and made for a frustrating watch. It was apparent from the get-go that the French pack was going to try to jump the gun on the set call, which resulted in a number of free kicks going against them. However, the technique of both front rows was found wanting too, making for a fairly dour second half with collapsed scrum after collapsed scrum.
Ben Smith was the best of the All Blacks. He looking dangerous all night, bringing his outstanding Super 15 form to the test match arena. His break to set up the first try saw him beat one of the world’s best defenders in Thierry Dusautoir, as the French captain was unable to get a hand on him.
He looked exceptional when he went to fullback too, and even more pressure will be added to the selectors to start him at fullback ahead of the out-of-sorts Israel Dagg next week.
Ma’a Nonu also played well, making a handful of line breaks. Aaron Smith provided good service and supported well in both tries, and Conrad Smith tackled well and looked to attack positively.
Among the forwards, Kieran Read was strong, running hard and tackling well all night. Liam Messam defended well in close, while Luke Romano threw himself into everything and was the best of the tight forwards.
For France, Louis Picamoles was a tower of strength all night, running hard and getting to the breakdown quickly. Ironically, he dropped the last pass in a movement that should have seen France score their second try, but he did little else wrong.
Dusautoir never stopped either, while Yoann Huget and Wesley Fofana were the best of the France backs.
Both teams have plenty to work on before Round 2 next week, as the All Blacks will look to close out the series. However, France showed that they are more than capable of beating this All Blacks side and will be out for revenge next week.
Expect a far more polished performance from both teams, as they become more familiar with each other and solidify their combinations.
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