14 Jun

All Blacks v France – Test Review
by Tracey Nelson
14 Jun 2009

The first test of the 2009 international season did turn out to be the banana skin test, with the All Blacks falling to a more passionate French side at Carisbrook. This was only the fourth ever French victory on New Zealand soil, and was also their highest test score in New Zealand. It was a test match won using better tactics, displaying better skills at the breakdown, and relentless in-your-face defence. Once again, France has out-passioned the All Blacks.

OK, so it was never going to be easy starting this season without Richie McCaw, and the added unavailability of Ali Williams, Rodney So’oialo, Conrad Smith and Sitiveni Sivivatu also left the All Blacks berefit of considerable experience. We already knew there would be no Dan Carter, and as Stephen Donald was the only 1st 5 looking even remotely like an international option there was no other choice there. A gamble was taken using three blindside flankers as the loose forward combination, a gamble that in the end failed to pay off as the French rumbled the All Blacks at the breakdown and gained three turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.

But the main problem the All Blacks had last night was an inability to adjust to what the French were throwing at them. Using their big forwards the French committed numbers to the breakdown and drove the All Blacks off their own ball, and yet again under this coaching regime we saw the side fail to respond and commit more numbers to secure the ball. The French employed a fast, flat defence that got up in the faces of the All Blacks – something the Springboks used to good effect in Dunedin last year – and like history repeating, the All Blacks simply failed to adjust until it was too late, and they continued to try and play with width from static ball.

Graeme Henry stated after the match that they had “hoped to play with a wee bit more freedom tonight and that didn’t happen”. It is either the height of arrogance or the height of stupidity to take the “free flowing” attitude into your first test match of the year with so many inexperienced players – not to mention in a test match played against France on a winter evening in Dunedin. Too many times now the All Blacks have been tipped up attempting to play attractive, expansive rugby at the cost of doing the hard yards required when playing test rugby.

To use the excuse of Super 14 rugby not giving the players the experience required for test rugby is just a cop out. If this year’s Super 14 taught us anything, it was that securing the breakdown and playing with front foot ball was the way to win. Quite how attempting to play from behind the advantage line against a flat defence was derived from watching the Bulls win the competition is beyond my comprehension.

Committing only two players to the breakdown when on attack is just foolhardy at any level, and the French were able to slow the All Blacks down and set their defence easily. Adam Thomson did the best he could, but he is not a fetcher and didn’t always run the right lines in support when the All Blacks were attempting to attack. There seemed to be no real ball carriers in the side until Mealamu came on, and while things got better in the second half when Latimer came on at openside, it was always going to be a struggle coming from behind on the scoreboard.

Stephen Donald put his team under pressure with some over-cute 22 restarts – nothing like adding to the pressure when you’re trying to get out of your own 22. There were also two halfway restarts that saw one going out on the full and the second only just missing doing the same thanks to some skillful work in the air by Cory Jane. Jane was a sole shining light for the All Blacks, his clever running from a Cowan box kick right on half time setting up the try for Liam Messam. But he and Rokocoko had precious little chance to show their skills. The midfield combination of Nonu and Toeava failed to fire and stuttered with several handling errors putting the All Blacks under pressure. A knock-on under no pressure by Toeava from a promising attacking move 10m out from the French line in the first half didn’t help set the tone.

The injection of McAlister didn’t improve things either, with first a spilt ball from a hopeful long pass by Weepu taking the All Blacks from attack to defending back in their own 22, and then the intercept by French fullback Maxime Medard to win the game being his legacy of his 20 minutes on the field. But it was the French defensive tactics of getting into the All Blacks’ line and positioning themselves between the support runners that put hesistation into the All Blacks line – something that yet again stemmed from attempting to play behind the advantage line.

The only highlight for the All Blacks was their lineout, where they won all but one of their 14 throws, and stole two of the French throws. But again the All Blacks were shown up by their inability to stop a rolling maul from the opposition throw, something the French used to good effect on several occasions to gain valuable territory. Even when the All Blacks didn’t contest and set up to defend against the rolling maul, they failed to stop their more skillful counterparts. This has to be one of the priorities for the All Blacks this week, as you can bet France will employ the maul again in Wellington.

So there will be plenty to work on this week with yet more injuries besetting the squad. Adam Thomson is out for six weeks with a broken hand while Andrew Hore has damaged ribs, which has seen George Whitelock and Aled de Malmanche called up from the Juniors. One thing the All Blacks will need to look at closely is not putting themselves under pressure – poor passes resulting in knock-ons, stupid chip kicks by forwards, confusion on defence and an inability to number up from a turnover are just some of many things the All Blacks will need to correct before next weekend. And well done France. Yet again they have masterminded a great victory by identifying weaknesses in our game and exploiting them well.

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