On a humid night in Paris – with the temperature at kickoff still around 90F – France overcame the pressure of the occasion to beat New Zealand 27-13, handing the All Blacks their first ever pool stage loss and taking charge of Pool A.
Things started off poorly for the home side, as the All Blacks ripped out to a 5-0 lead thanks to a great cross-field kick from Beauden Barrett, which allowed left-winger Mark Telea to score in the corner. After that the French lost their starting hooker, Julien Marchand to a thigh injury, and to compound things, the All Blacks tactical kicking seemed to be tiring the French forward pack.
However, as the first half went on the home side settled into the game. The Les Bleus defense made some incredible stops near its own try line and thanks to fullback Thomas Ramos the hosts began to chip away at New Zealand’s lead. By the end of the half, Ramos had converted three penalties, giving the home side a slender 9-8 advantage going into the break.
The second half was a completely different tale. France started fast, getting deep into New Zealand territory before a defensive stop, a line out, and a long floated pass from Reiko Ioane put Mark Telea in for his second try. At 42 minutes and 30 seconds New Zealand was leading the game 13-9. They wouldn’t score again.
Despite a valiant defensive effort from the men in black, France took the game by the scruff of the neck and in the words of All Blacks coach Ian Foster, “squeezed us.” Winger Damian Penaud scored a try in the corner, All Black winger Will Jordan got a yellow card for colliding with Ramos in the air, and Ramos slotted two of three penalties to put France further ahead.
With minutes to go replacement fullback Melvyn Jaminet scored France’s final try after collecting a bouncing ball from a box kick from replacement halfback Maxime Lucu. Jaminet slotted the conversion and the party was on in Paris.
France’s effort showed the mental fortitude of champions, something normally attributed to the All Blacks. Les Bleus put on a full 80 minute display, something that player of the match Gregory Aldritt emphasized. In the post-match on-field interview, he acknowledged it was a “really, really tough game,” but insisted that “I said before the game the one who was going to win was the one who was going to play for 80 minutes, and I think we played well for 80 minutes. It’s a great night for us.”
Meanwhile the All Blacks were left licking their wounds. In the post-match on-field interview, match captain Ardie Savea – one of the All Blacks better performers on the night – admitted that ill discipline, especially in the last twenty minutes let the team down. However, he did say he thought the team looked dangerous with the ball in hand. Meanwhile, Head Coach Ian Foster said, “I don’t think the discipline was too bad,” although he acknowledged France’s superiority at the breakdown did lead to penalties.
So what now for both teams? Where does this leave things in Pool A?
Rugby analyst, Two Cents Rugby, says France looked consistent throughout the game, and never showed any signs of being rattled even when they conceded points. Two Cents did note, however, that at half time he thought the French forwards were tiring and that the All Blacks would score. The opposite happened.
He referenced New Zealand’s poor performances from 2022 under Ian Foster, saying the team’s inability to get out of their own half, their penalties at the breakdown, their general ill discipline and the lack of attacking threat or game plan they showed reminded him of those dark days. Whereas France showed resilience under pressure, the All Blacks relied on moments of magic to score their points, but otherwise seemed to run out of attacking ideas quickly in the second half.
As the game went on, the New Zealand penalty count increased. By the end of the match the All Blacks had conceded 12 penalties to France’s 4, and one yellow card. The All Blacks also kicked more than usual, with Two Cents noting they kicked a record high 39 times in this game, compared to their previous high of 29 times earlier this year.
All isn’t lost for the All Blacks. Two Cents insists they should still make it out of Pool A, although there is some hesitation in his voice as he says it. He notes that the team has time to turn it around, especially as they face heavy underdogs Namibia next. But there will be question marks over the coach and the team selection going into the next game. The New Zealand public hate to lose, and this coach was already unpopular, before becoming the first ever All Blacks coach to lose a pool game.
Two Cents is concerned with the team’s scrum – and set piece play in general – which looked to lack power in the opening match. He hopes that the return of prop Tyrel Lomax, and a fully fit Brodie Retallick and Sam Cane can help solidify that area. He says there weren’t many positives for the All Blacks from this game other than the individual performances of Scott Barrett, Mark Telea and Reiko Ioane. However, he is not ready to send the All Blacks home just yet, saying that “it would be one of the greatest upsets of all time” if Italy managed to beat New Zealand.
With winger Emoni Narawa being sent home with a back injury, and the forward pack looking depleted it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Head Coach Ian Foster called up a replacement forward, perhaps Sampeni Finau or Ethan Blackadder. But Two Cents isn’t sure if team selection will change. Other than players like Jordie Barrett and Sam Cane coming back from injury, he reckons that keeping the team as is – like Ireland did after its game one loss in last year’s tour to New Zealand – and building combinations and form may be the best way forward for the All Blacks. Still, he admits that right now the All Black look like a team heading for a quarter-final exit.
France on the other hand are just getting the ball rolling. While Two Cents mentions that a loss could have derailed the hype behind the home team, this convincing win might have the necessary snowball effect to carry the team deep in the tournament. However, because of the draw, he is unwilling to predict with certainty that they will get past the quarter final.
One thing is certain, the opening day was France’s to enjoy. Les Bleus convincingly beat the All Blacks without many of their best players shining. Woki, Dupont, Fickou and Flament were all solid without being incredible. Who knows where the ceiling is for this team? We may just find out back in the Stade de France on October 28th.