All Blacks score five tries, demolish France
BY MARC HINTON IN MARSEILLE
At the end the capacity French crowd rose as one to give the All Blacks a standing ovation.
It was the least Richie McCaw and his team of bravehearts deserved as they put an exclamation point on their test match season with a quite special performance.
The All Blacks saved their best for last on this long northern tour, putting on a masterclass in Marseille today as they carved up the French in as expressive a display of rugby as they've produced all year.
Running in five quite magnificent tries, and outplaying the French team all over the park, Graham Henry's New Zealanders - playing beautiful rugby in an ugly combination of black shorts and white jerseys - won 39-12 with a display that was possibly even more commanding than the score indicated. At the end skipper McCaw was also named the IRB's Player of the Year - a just reward for a magnificent competitor whose standards have remained sky-high all year.
After the muddled mess that has been much of this autumn programme in the north, it was a delight to see rugby finally serve up a test match it could be proud of. The capacity crowd of mainly southern French oval ball diehards were completely won over by a New Zealand performance of the highest class, and they showed their appreciation when an at-times heated contest came to its end.
It was billed as the "Battle of the Hemispheres" as it pitted the form teams of the autumn carnival together in an unofficial final; and the All Blacks responded brilliantly as they finally unleashed the all-round package they've been desperate to serve up for the last five weeks.
It was a treat to watch as the All Black attacking game was finally unleashed. Allied with their trademark stout defence, which is now a given with this team, they had way too much class for a French team that had been heavily touted as the form team of the northern hemisphere. They led 22-12 at halftime and put the game away with two more second-half touchdowns, as they kept the French scoreless after the break. They also kept their line intact for a second straight tour in the north - which in itself is a remarkable achievement.
It was the All Blacks' 10th win of the year and regained the prized Dave Gallaher Trophy with the second victory of three over the French for the season.
The All Blacks backs had a field day in perfect conditions. Dan Carter finally unleashed one of those virtuoso displays that's been in the works for a while now, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith were outstanding in midfield and the back three of Mils Muliaina and his two flying wings had way too much for the French to handle.
Up front the All Blacks found the French a handful at scrum time, but it mattered not. They won the lineout contest with something to spare and led by the incomparable McCaw were all over the French at the breakdown. Big Brad Thorn battled tirelessly to the end (and his well-earned early trip home), while Kieran Read produced another eye-catching display at No 8.
As is now to be expected, their defence was of the highest class, and you could see the determination in them right to the final whistle not to let their line be breached.
McCaw and his men will be rapt that they've been able to sign off so splendidly in a test they'd happily billed as defining. That was the messages out of the All Blacks camp pretty much from the minute they walked off Twickenham last weekend.
This was the match on which their season hung. With four defeats already, it could never be called a resounding success, but victory would at least make it a run of six straight test wins and a continuation of their remarkable record under Graham Henry on the northern autumn swing.
They have never lost up here under him (excepting, of course, that Cardiff World Cup aberration), and heading into this match they had not conceded a try either for the past two tours. There can be no questioning the will and determination of this group.
But defeat would not only have burst that bubble, but handed the season series to the French, surrendered the prized Dave Gallaher and placed a disappointing fifth tick in the loss column. That would not do at all.
The other big factor to bear in mind was the fatigue one. The All Blacks looked tired this week and their challenge was to shrug off those aching limbs and wandering minds, and find one more peak, one more big effort.
They certainly achieved that magnificently in the opening 40 minutes, producing probably their best half of football of the year... It was at times nearly perfect stuff from the All Blacks who attacked with precision, crossed for three fine tries - which even the 65,000 Marseille faithful had to applaud vigorously - and took a significant 22-12 led into the sheds.
The French, after a passionate pre-match, picked up on the electricity of the occasion and opened with a couple of big scrums and an early Julien Dupuy penalty. They looked ready for the rumble, all right, and early signs were ominous for the All Black 'n Whites.
But they then settled. And struck. Sitiveni Sivivatu had his 27th test try after just seven minutes, and what a beaut it was. Jimmy Cowan and Nonu - having a whale of a game - made the initial thrust off crisp lineout ball and Carter's pinpoint flat pass gave his wing the perfect hole to dance through for the 7-3 lead.
The French regained the lead via two more Dupuy penalties while continuing to win the scrum battle pretty conclusively, but Muliaina had the New Zealanders back in front just past the opening quarter with the try of the tour - the season, even.
Cowan sparked a sensational 90m try when he gathered an aimless French kick deep in his 22, and immediately sensed something was on. Muliaina took the wide pass, Smith shovelled it on to Sivivatu who left David Marty in his dust and then timed the inpass to Muliana beautifully for a clean run-on for the fullback.
By now the All Blacks were humming. After their attacking struggles on this trip, it was a treat to see the shackles finally unleashed.
In some ways the New Zealanders' third try of their half might have been their most satisfying. It came eight minutes from the break and was served up via - of all places - the scrum.
Kieran Read probably could have scored when he steamed on to a break opened up by a Carter chip-kick that sat up perfectly for Nonu, but when he slipped the pass to Tom Donnelly the big lock couldn't quite hang on in the tackle.
Never mind. From the resultant scrum the All Blacks caught the French napping, Neemia Tialata put a huge hit on and when ball popped loose Jeroma Kaino was on hand to grab the score.
Only a late Francois Trinh-Duc dropped goal cut the deficit to 10 by the break; but it was hard to shake the feeling that the French were just hanging on.
After only a Carter penalty to show for the third quarter, Cory Jane put the issue beyond doubt when he scored a fabulous individual try to take the margin to 20.
He scooped up a bounced Cowan pass, fended off his marker, then put in a pinpoint kick that he won the chase to like it was a Sunday stroll.
That left just time for Smith to grab try No 5 - the first time this season they've amassed more than three touchdowns - off a superb McCaw turnover, and for a couple of melees to erupt that showed how much feeling was in the contest.
And then the All Blacks trudged off to take their bows, their trophy and no doubt to toast the most perfect of ends to their test programme. Tres magnifique!
France 12 (Julien Dupuy 3 pens; Francois Trinh-Duc - drop goal),
New Zealand 39 (Sitiveni Sivivatu, Mils Muliaina, Jerome Kaino, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith tries; Dan Carter 2 pens, 4 cons).
Who was the best-performed All Blacks forward on the northern tour?