France 7 vs. New Zealand 8 23rd October 2011
How I wish I’d been wrong! I said France can beat New Zealand but won’t (see previous) and that’s exactly how it looked at Eden Park as New Zealand stood firm, Trinh-Duc missed his kick at goal and Craig Joubert remained reluctant to penalise All-blacks at the breakdown.
New Zealand management brought up the old rugby prejudice about French ill-discipline and thuggery in the build-up and, if that may not be without truth about some Les Bleus of the past and if it was probably an early attempt to influence the referree, this French team in this match played a remarkably committed, disciplined game. They contained the runners – Kieran Reed made some yards, but none of the All Black back three seemed to able to break the shackles. It would be wrong to say that they looked ordinary – they aren’t ordinary – but although Isaac Dagg, Richard Cahui and Cory Jane defended well, fielded high balls and cleared their lines, they didn’t ever threaten to break French defensive lines or elude chasers. Maxime Mermoz and, in particular, Aurelien Rougerie, gave as good as they got in the centres. The French front-five exerted a degree of dominance in the scrum and weren’t well-treated by Joubert, and the back row made their mark even as McCaw hobbled about the pitch turning over possession as he always does.
You have to feel for the French team. Derided by everyone, or at least by a large section of ill-informed rugby watchers and commentators, they showed they were truly good enough to be in the final. Like England in the last world cup, they started the campaign badly, fell out a bit, turned on the management and seemed to emerge stronger for it. Perhaps also they had a management team that allowed the players freedom to decide their own game (an approach that is more likely to bring up conflict but more likely to resolve it properly than the authoritarian approach). In the final, they showed themselves able to compete with the best team in the world in their own backyard. Australia couldn’t do it, Wales wouldn’t have done it, South Africa might have done; England would have been out-run, out-thought and generally smashed all over the park; France came very close!
It was an interesting (and nerve-wracking) tussle. One area the All-blacks looked likely to dominate was the line-out. Indeed that’s where their only try came from. It was a training-ground move that had the management team slapping the back of the forwards coach: Two pods of jumpers significantly far enough apart so that when they threw to the back there was a big hole in the French line between front and back pod for Woodcock to charge through and score. Obviously taken aback by how easy it had been, France were careful when to contest line-outs after that. The All-blacks neutralised French attempts to set up driving mauls, and stole a couple of French throws. Even in this area of the game though, France were never totally dominated and managed, through the extraordinarily springy Immanuel Harinordiquy, to nick a few themselves.
It was always going to be difficult to break down either side’s defence and neither team gave anything. France had more possession, more territory and probably created the best of the limited chances to break through with ball in hand. They shipped it wide, used the width and tried to stretch New Zealand. New Zealand, on the whole kicked better, and made the right calls more often. I was surprised that, for example, France tried short drop-outs when they’d been stuck in their own 22 and up against New Zealand pressure for a long period in the first half. Surely they should have just smashed it down field and made their opponents play from deep.
And so we come to refereeing. Joubert was Southern Hemisphere. It seemed to me that too often All black forwards dived over, slowed ball down and weren’t penalised. It seemed harsh on France. It is hard enough to compete with the All blacks in the contact area, who have won this world cup with their competitiveness in rucks and mauls, with their ability to win turn-over, deny quick ball, counter-ruck aggressively, prevent rolling mauls etc., without the added problem of a referee who lets them get away with the darker parts of that skill-set. It took a while for him to realise that the French scrum was dominant and he penalised France unfairly a couple of times. On one occasion, he let New Zealand get away with a collapsed scrum just so the game flowed and he didn’t have to waste time resetting it. I expect it was directives from somewhere to speed things up. He played on even when the ball was out of play and Morgan Parra was on the floor concussed. He penalised France for delaying a line-out when Jean Baptise Poux was receiving treatment. Too many directives, not enough common sense.
And so I was right in the end as to who would win this World Cup. Some consolation, but as I’m sure you’ll be aware from the tone of this entry, I would have been overjoyed if Yachvilli’s leg had been good enough to kick the penalty that Trinh-Duc missed by a mile, or if they had worked another drop goal opportunity or if Joubert had given them one more kickable penalty. If … if … if. The most pointless word in sport.