In an entertaining game played at the Stade de France in Paris, the All Blacks won their final test match of 2016 against France 19-24.
In a rivalry spread of over 100 years, the match completed the International season for each team. The New Zealand side had successfully won 13/14 games, with the sole defeat at the hands of Ireland. The french team played with heart and passion, putting up an honest account of themselves but were unable to control the formidable team from the Southern Hemisphere.
It was a close result, not the cake-walk that many rugby commentators had predicted. And that was the delightful result–to see the French side bring the game to the visiting Kiwi team. Challenging from the moment the haka was performed, right up to the last five minutes. Très bien!
Final Test of 2016
In front of a boisterous French crowd, the normally composed All Black team were under pressure immediately. The french making inroads into New Zealand (NZ) territory on many occasions. The All Blacks defending well, taking defensive turnover ball often to cut-short many attacking plays.
From thone turnoers, a typical pin-point cross-field kick by Beauden Barrett allowed Julian Savea and Israel Dagg to combine perfectly. Speed across the ground sent the fullback over for the first try. Tremendous work, and Dagg’s 10th try of the season which was made with just 30% possession in the opening 10 minutes.
Two French players left the field early, with Wesley Fofana going in for a concussion test [cleared] but lock Yoann Maestri being replaced. His was as a result of the bruising ruck area, mightily contested by les bleus. They wanted to compete for the ball, and to recycle and use the ball at all costs.
Opposing them, the NZ loose forwards Jerome Kaino and Matt Todd were equal to the task. Backed up by locks Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and props Joe Moody and Owen Franks. The collision was like a car crash. Many players needing a second to lift themselves up from the ground, such was the impact.
Match played at full pace
Both French wingers, Noa Nakaitaci and big Virimi Vakatawa were used often and with good affect. Barging into the line, they also popped up on their wing, inter-changing sides very well. Matched in size by the All Blacks fijian-born winger Waisake Naholo, it was an example of the reputation that the South Seas flyers have.
XV de France: Dans les pas de Virimi Vakatawa https://t.co/0ekiJJilBp pic.twitter.com/RLELwFRO5t
— Arnaud Coudry (@ArnaudCoudry) November 24, 2016
After 25 minutes, the French earned a penalty. Halfback Maxime Machenaud kicked the goal, and he was a ‘general’ on the field too. Marshaling his side well, with quick work from the breakdown to release the backline. Vakatawa had several chances, but inside passes went to ground too often. A lethal weapon, his positioning all through the game showed in the meters he ran tonight.
Just before halftime, the pace of the game was starting to bite. The final test match of 2016, exhaustion would play it’s part tonight. When presented a penalty, France took the points to close the opening 40 minutes at 6-10.
A clash worthy of a playoff match
For all the attacking opportunities, yet only scoring two penalties, many would think the French would be unhappy. To the contrary, they held all the possession, territory and offensive metrics. New Zealand were ‘living off the scraps’ but if any side could take advantage of those bare bones, it would the All Blacks.
At times, the French received no value from the ball they had. Completion would tell in the end, as the ball went to ground too often. But not to be downhearted, the home team continued to play at pace. That was a rewarding strategy, admirable, and will set-up France for a good Six Nations campaign.
From one les bleus set-play, they were within the black-zone area but an intelligent Barrett intercept try ended that attack short. Even down 6-17, it did not stop the French players intent. All out attack was the plan, but fortunately the All Black defense was outstanding on this night.
Exhaustion was a fear after 13 tests, so the visitors substituted several men early: Retallick off for Scott Barrett, Franks and Moody replaced by Charlie Faumuina and Wyatt Crockett. Sadly, Ryan Crotty was pulled off with a head-block, giving Rieko Ioane his second test cap.
By the time that Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith and Ardie Savea came on after 56 minutes, the team in white and black found some quality possession. After a lineout, they smashed through the blue-zone, with Faumuina crossing. At 9-24, it would take a huge effort for the French to fight back from here.
Miraculous defense needed from All Blacks to win the game
With the La Marseillaise sung by the crowd, and the ever-present trumpet sounding out, it was all that France required. From a scrum penalty, a quick tap allowed Louis Picamoles to be rewarded with a try. Allez!! It raised the crowd to their feet and Baptiste Serin converted–16-24. Now the game was back on.
With all replacements used up when Codie Taylor came on for Dane Coles, the NZ pack needed to outlast the fast-finishing French. They would not go down without a fight, France pushing the ball through the hands. They were firing across the field, the pack bulldozed the All Blacks at times but quickly to their feet, Kieran Read was most pleased by the display of his forwards.
Needing to score points, with six minutes left, they chose to kick for goal and brought the game right back to 19-24. Time was running out though, and they lost their structure to a degree. Playing with heart, the attitude from the Guy Noves coached side was a positive. The backline were impressive, as was the French pack–out weighing the more mobile NZ side–they dominated in areas but unfortunately, not on the scoreboard.
After 80 minutes, the All Blacks managed to hold possession toward the end. Recycling ball, playing near the side of the field, preventing the opposition from any chances. It was smart play and when Wayne Barnes indicated time had elapsed, Aaron Smith kicked for touch to end the tough encounter.
Win caps off a superb International season
Thanks @FFRugby for an epic battle tonight. Until next time…#FRAvNZL #TeamAllBlacks pic.twitter.com/4Ax5zTc6hL
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) November 26, 2016
Respect between the sides is clear to see. The crowd was speckled with All Black supporters, and prior to and after the game, fans will shake hands and toast the result. It was played out with great spirit, and the sides will each feel the bruises tomorrow. Some ‘handbags’ were swung in the heat of play, but it was played in the spirit of keeping the ball alive.
This result came after a a long season, with some ups than downs. It came after the six player retirements from the 2015 Rugby World Cup, so in terms of blooming new All Blacks, it has been a tremendous account for the current group.
Asked to show maturity, the backline certainly has grown over this year. Barrett, along with TJ Perenara continued the form that won them a Super Rugby title with the Hurricanes, and Anton Lienert-Brown is the find of the year, to firm up the midfield.
A good night in Paris, the hosts did themselves proud and in the final test match of 2016, the All Blacks reassured their fans that the World Champions could still close out the year in style.
“Main photo credit”