The All Blacks have sent a clear message that they are indeed the team to beat at Rugby World Cup 2011, thumping France 37-17 in what was to be their toughest pool game.
They scored five tries to France's two, in what was a dominant display in every facet of the game and France simply had no answer to this.
Despite this, it was the French who exerted all the early pressure, spending nearly the entire first 10 minutes inside the All Blacks half. But they couldn't get through the rock-solid defence of the All Blacks, resorting to taking a drop kick, which missed.
The next 10 minutes were decisive in determining the outcome, as the All Blacks ran in three very classy tries. The first coming after a midfield break from Ma'a Nonu had the French defence on the ropes, allowing for Adam Thomson to cross in the corner. The second saw Piri Weepu throw a perfectly timed pass to Cory Jane, who wrapped around the outside of a lineout and ran into to cross, catching the French defence drifting. While the third came from an outstanding piece of individual work from Daniel Carter, who stepped through the French defence before passing inside to Israel Dagg.
It was 19-0 after 20 minutes, and that was more or less the game then and there.
The All Blacks continued to look dangerous for the remainder of the game, crossing for two more tries, while France were able to snaffle a couple of their own—one from an intercept and one from a tap which would prove to be very dubious as it didn't seem time had been signaled back on after a break when the tap was taken. It was purely academic by that stage though, as All Blacks ran out comfortable winners.
The key to the win came in gaining dominance at the breakdown. The All Blacks' loose forwards were outstanding here, affecting countless turnovers and making countless tackles between them. Richie McCaw had his best game of 2011 in his 100th test and is showing that he is starting to get back to his best.
The tight forwards were also very good, particularly in the first 60 minutes where they dominated the French at set-piece time, allowing for a good platform for the backs to work with.
The backline looked slick, with Daniel Carter delivering yet another stellar performance, running the show well and making the jobs of the men outside him that much easier. To go with this, he looked very dangerous running, with the third try in particular showing just how good he is with ball in hand.
In the midfield, they constantly looked threatening, with Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith running dangerously while being generally good on defence.
The back three were good, with Israel Dagg in particular playing outstandingly well. He showed great skills under the high ball and gave the French defence all sorts of problems. Unfortunately for the All Blacks, he sustained an injury late in the game and was forced to leave the field. They'll hope he comes right, but if he doesn't they have a very capable replacement in Mils Muliaina.
The controversial Sonny Bill Williams got his chance to impress, replacing Cory Jane on the wing late in the first half after Jane appeared to suffer an injury. Once again, he showed that he can be a very dangerous player and was outstanding for the first 10 minutes of the second half, setting up a try and minutes later making a very good run.
But he went missing for the next 25 minutes, hardly featuring again until scoring on the end of the line in the 76th minute. Whether this is enough to justify selection is largely up to opinion. But doing two or three good things in 45 minutes on the park just doesn't do it for this writer.
Ultimately though, it was a commanding performance that sends a clear message to the other teams. While none of the other teams have really looked the goods, this All Blacks side looked nothing but the goods against one of the teams many call a genuine contender. Although one could also argue that this means little in the scheme of the whole World Cup, as they have been in a similar position before and lost. But if they play like they did tonight, they will go through the remainder of 2011 untouched.
They now move on to play Canada next Sunday in their last hit out before their quarterfinal, where they will likely welcome back Kieran Read, who will make his World Cup debut, after being sidelined for the whole tournament thus far with an injury.
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