OPINION: Tactically spot on, the All Blacks literally kicked France into submission in Christchurch last night.
The highlights of the 30-0 win were wing Ben Smith's length-of-the-field try and the defensive stand that broke France's resolve, but the template was not the All Blacks' fabled running game.
This was a disciplined and collective execution of a kicking plan, which the coaching staff hatched in the week since the first test.
Few were better than halfback Aaron Smith, who has flicked a switch since swapping a Highlanders jersey for a black one, but he was not alone in bringing his kicking boots.
Ma'a Nonu is often said not to possess a strong kicking game, but his first two set the tone for a match in which the All Blacks' boots gave them an all important territorial advantage.
Without the injured Dan Carter's precise and long kicking game, the first test exposed a chink in the home side's armour, as first-five eighth Aaron Cruden struggled to impose control.
A week on, the coaches and players had deciphered the code perfectly. Instead of thrusting the responsibility on their first-five's shoulders, they shared the load, and Cruden looked more at ease as a result in all facets of his play.
From Nonu's grubbers and wiper kicks, to Conrad Smith's sliders, and Israel Dagg's raking punts, the clever kicks kept coming, and in wing Ben Smith, they had a faithful golden retriever to ensure good kicks became great ones.
Smith's task was inglorious and perhaps it was fitting he gained the reward with a second-half try when the All Blacks finally launched their running game. The kick-heavy tactics were smart on several fronts, not least the slippery conditions.
France retained the same edge they had in the first test when it came to the breakdown, where Thierry Dusatoir, Louis Picamoles and Florian Fritz all had early success over the ball.
With such a focus on the tackle, France were vulnerable in the back field. And by not keeping ball in hand - the All Blacks kicked 25 times in the opening half - one of France's greatest assets was blunted. The visitors only reaching their 22m zone twice in the first half.
Kicking coach Mick Byrne will save the tape of this test as an instructional tool.
There was no sign of the modern trend of setting up a risky phase in your own territory before kicking.
The All Blacks cut straight to the chase and booted the synthetic off the ball at the first available opportunity. They enjoyed 66 per cent territory by halftime as they turned the screws.
Aaron Smith was the pick of the kicking bunch. He was pin-point in nearly everything he did for the second week in a row.
His kicks were varied, but always accurate, and always of the correct weighting. And the pass he threw to put Nonu into the clear after 26 minutes was one few others could execute with a slippery ball.
When Piri Weepu entered the fray on 58 minutes, his first act was, not surprisingly to launch the ball into the Christchurch night air.
By the end one could only pose the question. Who said only running rugby can be beautiful?
- Sunday Star Times
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