10 Oct

All Blacks v France – the aftermath
by Tracey Nelson
10 Oct 2007

Before the Rugby World Cup began, Springbok coach Jake White stated
that it would be won by defense rather than attack. It would appear
that he may very well be correct on this count.

The All Blacks bowed
out of the 2007 competition at the hands of a French side fired up not
only by the prospect of bowing out of the tournament they are hosting,
but a side that had done its defensive homework well. Unlike so many
of the recent encounters between the two sides, this time the French
managed to shut the All Blacks down and claw their way to victory
against the pre-game odds.

Bernard Laporte may look insane, but his methodology going into this
match had all the hallmarks of a cold, calculating assassin. Shut
down the All Blacks’ offloading game, shut down McCaw and Carter, and
you’re in with a chance.

This the French did with remarkable
accuracy, and despite the All Blacks having a wealth of possession the
majority of it was slow ball. The French tackled like demons around
the fringes, possibly bordering on offside for the most part, but it
caused the All Blacks to go to ground and bring in more support
players.

With the ball slowed down, the French defence had plenty of
time to re-muster and gradually they dragged us into a game resembling
trench warfare rather than the fast offload game the All Blacks prefer
and excell at.

Therein lies the problem. With the All Blacks having over 60% of
possession in this match, it actually played into the French plan of
shutting down our game and frustrating us into kicking the ball. It’s
common knowledge that the All Blacks prefer to keep the ball in play
from a kick rather than to put it over the touch line, and that they
also like to attack from the back. So the French forced us into
kicking, then tempted us with a small game of force-back, before
kicking it to someone they knew would run it back at them.

It was
then a case of isolate the player and force the All Blacks to commit
players to the ruck, and hey presto – ball on the ground, players
trying to get back into position, and the All Blacks are slowed up.

When the ball did emerge from these situations, too often we were
forced into running sideways and though the French defence was
stretched to its limit, it held.

Perhaps this is where we slipped up along the way.

Being such a
successful, winning side (42 wins from 48 starts under this coaching
regime) means that often you don’t have to think too hard about what
the opposition are doing, and just work on what you want to do
instead. Whilst we were pretty good on defence in general, did we do
enough homework on our oppsition to employ offensive defence? To shut
down their game and their options? Did we sit back and wait for them
to come rather than go out and hunt them down, as they did to us?

Hindsight is a marvellous thing, and it would be all too easy for us
to sit back now and questioning the reconditioning period, the
rotation policy over the past two years, the rotation of players
during the pool games, and some of the selections going into this
game. But most of us bought into this programme, whether grudgingly
at first or willingingly, so to do so would be churlish and cast us
amongst the fair-weather fans.

The team did not go out on the field
to play anything other than the best they could. The coaches looked
at everything that had gone before in previous failed World Cup
campaigns and tried something different.

However, at the end of the
day in a sudden-death game, things didn’t go our way as they are
sometime prone to do.

Questions may well be asked about team selections, as to why the
in-form, experienced Doug Howlett missed out. Likewise the steady,
wise head of Aaron Mauger would have been invaluable in the last 20
minutes of that game. The lack of a true game breaker from our
bench was also shown up when France brought on the likes of Chabal and
Michalak in the second half.

The referee was a factor, but not the
deciding one that so many seem to be venting about. Sure, he missed a
couple of key incidents and also totally overreacted to yellow card
McAlister, but we were still in with a chance to win the game with 10
minutes to play despite what had unfolded in the 60 minutes
beforehand.

In the end we were under-prepared. But how to you prepare to take on
France in a quarter final, a team with their backs to the wall, when
your pool opposition have been the likes of an out-of-sorts Italy, a
second-string Scottish side, Romania, and first-timers Portugal?

We
played hard games in the Tri-Nations prior to the tournament, and
there was no shortage of hard-edged rugby there. But that was two
months ago, and there’s only so much value to be found in beating the
daylights out of the rugby minnows.

There’s one more thing. What about the other team on the field? As
per usual it seems to be all about the All Blacks losing, and not
France winning. This was a massive game for France, and they
responded as men possessed. Whether they can manage to string two
wins together after such a mental and physical effort remains to be
seen but I suspect that unlike in the past where they usually go down
with a whimper following a win over New Zealand, this French side have
now seen the glint of the William Webb Ellis trophy.

With the
semi-final being played in Paris and the chance to play in the final
on home soil, this French side will finally produce some of the flair
we know they are capable of.

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