One step forward, two steps back.
This two-try 24-9 win was uncharacteristically ugly from the All Blacks.
It was not as if the French were dramatically better, more their opposition were poor.
The 23,300 locals who packed New Plymouth's Yarrow Stadium for their first taste of rugby in eight months won't remember this dysfunctional effort fondly. There was an overwhelming sense of anticlimax about the way the All Blacks clinched a series whitewash and seventh consecutive win over the French.
From Auckland to Christchurch there was a clear improvement curve from Steve Hansen's men. The barometer swiftly plummeted down the other side of Mt Taranaki last night. Deflating doesn't do it justice.
The biggest two cheers of the night were reserved for the Naki's favourite son, Beauden Barrett. The first for his introduction but the second, when Barrett scored the All Blacks' second try on full-time, could be heard all the way to Bluff. Otherwise, there was little to shout about.
Credit must go to the French defence but they were rarely tested with any form of conviction. At the end of a 10-month season Les Bleus deserve praise for salvaging some pride when there were plenty of excuses. For the All Blacks, though, the review won't be pleasant.
Sometimes there is the danger of overcomplicating matters. That looked to be the case for the All Blacks back-line. With Piri Weepu delivering static ball, Dan Carter couldn't spark his misfiring outsides. Confusion reigned. Intentions to integrate the kicking and attacking game-plan seemed to create uncertainty. Even Carter appeared unsettled as to which option to choose. Natural instincts took a backseat.
Execution all round was absent. As French first five-eighth Remi Tales hoisted up-and-unders, errors under the high ball - usually a strength of the All Blacks - were frequent. Israel Dagg, Victor Vito, Kieran Read and Weepu were all guilty of basic mistakes. Missed tackles were another complaint. Owen Franks was twice pinged at the scrum; Luke Romano guilty at the lineout. Minor frustrations, but, together, they formed a growing, pestering sore.
Finally, after a scrappy 35 minutes, Ben Smith justified Hansen's decision to leave him on the wing with a classic finish in the corner. Had Smith not got low and dived early he would have been pushed into touch. It came moments after the versatile Dunedin lad showed his elusive qualities with a typically brilliant break. From there it felt as though the All Blacks would kick on but, just before half-time, when Conrad Smith lost the ball over the line after a deft Ma'a Nonu nudge, the frustrations flooded back. Smith pounded the ground, realising he blew a chance to inflict a crippling blow on the tourist's mentality.
Hansen's half-time pep talk changed little. This was a significant test for Read before handing the leadership mantle back to Richie McCaw. The No 8 has been in fine form but he will not be pleased with three consecutive knock-ons.
It was no surprise to see Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Tony Woodcock injected before some fans had returned to their seats. A downbeat Weepu trudged to the bench knowing he did not grab his chance.
The tense nature of the underwhelming contest meant Hansen did not to hand Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua and Matt Todd their test debuts until late. That was a clear sign he was never comfortable. Nobody was.
All Blacks 24 (Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett tries ; Dan Carter 4 pens, con) France 9 (Yoann Huget 2 pens, Florian Fritz dg). HT; 8-6.
- Sunday Star Times
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