CARDIFF, Wales — Ghosts were exorcised, myths dispelled, benchmarks set. It was a night when the All Blacks put in arguably their greatest performance in a World Cup knockout match since their vaporisation of England in 1995. There were nine tries in all, each one hammering home a single message — the All Blacks have arrived.
Their first half was the most brutal, ruthless stretch of rugby we’ve seen in this tournament, and they could have been forgiven if they tailed off in the second 40. Instead they stepped it up, scoring try after try to wipe that 2007 loss to France, also in Cardiff, from the All Blacks’ DNA. Boxing bouts would have been stopped for less, though Louis Picamoles did his best impression of Marcel Cerdan with a weak punch of Richie McCaw in the second half. It was a sign of desperation in the face of the closest thing there is to rugby perfection.
Even the myth of French unpredictability was dispelled on a night when the All Blacks put in a performance their rivals have been fearing; the French team had hoped this level of ruthlessness and sheer brutality was a thing of the past. But as Dan Carter hoiked the ball into the air at kickoff, Ben Smith out-jumped Picamoles, Aaron Smith cut a lovely drifting line, Brodie Retallick put in a perfectly judged pass and Julian Savea blasted his way through the floundering rouge defence, they outlined why they are ahead of the chasing pack.
And perhaps even more impressive was the synthesis the All Blacks found for their seventh and ninth tries. Both were born of offloads from props — first Charlie Faumuina for Kieran Read’s and then Joe Moody’s for Tawera Kerr-Barlow’s second. New Zealanders are raised on skills, not dumbbells.
The All Blacks married power and precision, personified by their two wingers. Those wonderful dancing feet of Nehe Milner-Skudder — if this was 1935, he’d be on the silver screen challenging Fred Astaire to a sidestep-off — are the perfect foil to Savea’s incredible ability to combine sheer strength and speed. Though Milner-Skudder was forced off at half-time, Savea enjoyed the freedom of Cardiff as he racked up his hat trick.
There was the slightest suspicion heading into this match that those experienced legs — all 988 caps of them in the starting XV — might be catching up with the All Blacks, but such thoughts were proved to be a fallacy. Carter rolled back 10 years in Cardiff to put in a performance reminiscent of his 2005 best when he dissected the British & Irish Lions; his fend, delay and then flicked pass for Savea’s first try was exquisite, and it ran in parallel to his faultless game management.
Such was his level of control and the downward force of the Kiwi’s foot on the cockerel’s throat that in the second half it was not the sound of “Allez, Les Bleus” ringing from the stands but instead “Fields of Athenry,” sung by those who had arrived a day early for Ireland’s quarterfinal against Argentina on Sunday. It was sheer, wonderful gluttony for those inside the stadium.
Frederic Michalak said during the week that France had a two percent chance of beating New Zealand. That estimate looked optimistic in hindsight as the All Blacks ran in their third try in 28 minutes to kill off any French momentum. Picamoles showed some rare character from France while Wesley Fofana was hungry for the ball, but though France enjoyed a 10-minute spell in the first half, New Zealand were a class above in every area. France buckled.
The All Blacks’ back three was exemplary, but even on a night when they were so far ahead of France, it was still short of a perfect performance. Handling errors have been far too numerous in this competition — Read was guilty of flapping at a couple of high balls — and that in itself bodes well for the Kiwis. There is no danger of them playing their final a game early.
New Zealand have their detractors in the world of rugby; they do carry a certain swagger, but on this form, even the most anti-All Black rooters must have felt slightly weak at the knees with every punch landed on France’s flailing torso.
Earlier in the week, Philippe Saint-Andre, the now-ex-France coach, called for “additional soul, generosity, craziness, mischief and intelligence” from his side. Instead it was the All Blacks who boasted all of those characteristics. Until now, New Zealand have had to keep their match intensity up through ferocious training sessions, such was the paucity of their pool. They were hoping for a real challenge under the roof in Cardiff.
They will have to wait another week for that, and it will take something truly special to stop them.