One of the telling moments in New Zealand’s 62-13 drubbing of a beleaguered France came in the 65th minute when Charlie Faumuina ran through a gap and offloaded to Kieran Read for yet another All Black try.
There was nothing special in Faumuina’s play necessarily, save the fact that it came from a reserve front rower who had only just come off the bench. For most teams, if their reserve front rowers come on and hold up the scrum, that is success. Not so for New Zealand, who have more lofty goals.
Every player in the team is expected to maintain the highest standards right the way through the match. It is this expectation, along with the incredible skills right through the team, which makes the All Blacks such a difficult proposition.
Every All Black can tackle, can run, can pass, can contest the ball on the ground. There is no way to avoid the pressure. The likelihood of a turnover play is always there right across the field and teams playing the All Blacks have to be at their peak for 80 minutes just to compete. 75 or 78 is not enough – the men in black can do a terrible amount of damage with just a few opportunities.
France found this out the hard way. Several times their pedestrian attack ended with a dropped ball or a turnover, at which point the black V8 roared into life and ran away. The All Blacks are masters at the turnover-and-two-quick-passes Sevens play, finding the space before the defence is set. With Savea and Milner-Skudder on the wings, the damage is often significant.
The ball needs to find its way there first of course, which is where Kieran Read is invaluable. They say that the skill of the classic no.8 is as a link man, and if this is the case, Read is the best 8 in the world.
The number of times he gives the second last pass in a try-scoring movement is staggering. His reading of the game is sublime, his work off the ball relentless, and his catch and pass skills the equal of most three-quarters.
Watch how often Read takes the pass from the first receiver in broken play, straightens to square up the defence, and then sets a teammate away into open spaces. He is as relentless and regular as a Dunedin winter.
Read’s opposite number, Louis Picamoles, was one of the few Frenchmen who stood up. He regularly made the gain line and tackled with intent. Unfortunately when he made a break or a half break, he was mostly left posted by his teammates, whose appetite for work off the ball was minimal.
Picamoles frustration at Richie McCaw during a second half melee was understandable and his yellow card for ‘not a punch, but a fist in the face’ is yet another soft penalty dreamed up by the cup’s over-zealous officialdom. Surely it is either a punch or not a punch, and if it’s not a punch, then how is it a yellow card?
Whatever the explanation, the fact is that there was nothing in it on either side and for France to have a penalty reversed while on attack, and to lose a player for 10 minutes, was ridiculous. Fortunately it made no difference to the tepid French. They still would have lost by a cricket score. But decisions of this sort will decide an important game one day and rugby will be the loser.
France were as bad as the All Blacks were good. Frederic Michalak’s early injury was really no loss for France. Michalak had already missed two tackles and had a kick charged down by Brodie Retallick for a try. At least his replacement Remy Tales was more reliable in this respect, even if he had little to work with.
Wesley Fofana made a couple of breaks, but seemed reluctant to open up the jets in open space. Scott Spedding was almost the equal of Picamoles for enterprise, but with his defensive line leaking like the Labor Party, he was always in for a tough time.
New Zealand’s semi-final opponents South Africa will have watched the performance with interest and, despite the All Black dominance, they will know that at the very least the Bokke will present an entirely different physical proposition. France rarely if ever made a dominant tackle and as such gave New Zealand plenty of space to work with.
One particularly interesting part of the New Zealand structure was their propensity to leave 3-4 players in the tram tracks to take advantage of the switch in attack.
They know that by going side to side and stretching the defence, they will make breaks. But they also know that often these days a three-on-two isn’t always enough to score. By stationing players on the fringes, they often end up with a four-on-two or better, and with their excellent catch and pass skills, the try is usually a formality.
It is tempting to get carried away by this All Black performance. They are undoubtedly the best team in the world, and as one would expect, were excellent and clinical right across the field.
The problem for the punters is that the French allowed them to be. France defended poorly, gave away ball regularly and generally didn’t put a lot of pressure on. So how good was this All Blacks performance really?
Well, the answer still has to be that they were pretty damn good. New Zealand used the full width of the field and were accurate with their catch and pass. Richie McCaw gave a glimpse of what to expect in the semis by playing harder on the ball than in any game so far.
Dan Carter’s offload to Savea was one to wear out the replay button, so natural and perfect it was. Savea himself brought back memories of Jonah-Lomu versus France in the 1999 semi-final.
Retallick and Whitelock were standouts in the second row. Kaino toiled hard, giving space and time to Read and McCaw. Ma’a Nonu was unlucky not to score after a bustling 50 metre run.
New Zealand controlled their exits well during the rare forays France made into their 22. Almost every player offloaded in contact at one time or another, and hardly any went to ground. The defence rushed and maintained its shape, giving France nowhere to go.
It was an utterly complete performance.
The only hope for New Zealand’s opponents from here is that they could be a touch underdone, having not really been tested by anyone during this World Cup. Their lowest score has been 26 points against Argentina – their other scores have been 58, 43, 47 and 62.
But any clear-eyed analyst will know that this is a forlorn hope. New Zealand are the best prepared side in world rugby and current world champions. The high scores speak less to the poor quality of other teams, and more to the All Blacks’ ability to meet whatever challenge comes their way.
They will continue to lift and other teams must go with them. The reality is that only two sides have any genuine chance of beating them in this cup, and that is South Africa and Australia. Ireland may fancy their chances, but the hard fact is that only two teams beat the All Blacks with anything approaching regularity, and they’re not from the north.
So here we go. The whistle has blown and the conductor is waving his flag. Stand back kids. The All Black locomotive is leaving the the station.