The double-punch delivered by the French forwards to the heart of the All Blacks’ pack did more than make for untidy reading on the scoreboard in Paris.
By scoring two tries from lineout drives, both to hooker Peato Mauvaka, in the first half of their 40-25 victory on Sunday morning, the French chiselled a chunk off the All Blacks’ pride at Stade de France and took it home as a souvenir.
It’s one thing to expose a weakness in All Blacks’ tight forwards. To do it twice, with the same man reaping a five-pointer, stung.
Traditionally the All Blacks have taken it upon themselves to be the ones to serve it up to opponents up front. And if exposed, they’re usually quick to rectify the issue.
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Mauvaka, to the delight of himself and his team-mates, discovered that wasn’t part of the narrative as around 80,000 fans celebrated his efforts.
His try in the 32nd minute was almost a carbon-copy of the one he nailed in the third minute, and when the French led 24-6 at halftime they may not have quite believed they could open-up the All Blacks’ defence so easily from a set-piece.
“It definitely hurts, being a tight forward,” All Blacks captain and lock Sam Whitelock said.
“That’s something that we have had pride in, for the whole year. To give up a couple of easy ones, like that, definitely hurts.”
Having lost 29-20 to Ireland in Dubin the previous weekend, the All Blacks wanted to aim-up against the French and end the year with a win. Despite their scrum being dominant, the shoddy lineout defence cost valuable points, and their handling and passing, as was the case against the Irish, stifled their attack.
“It’s something that we have to make sure, going forward, even though we don’t have a game next week we get better and evolve in that area,” Whitelock added, in reference to the defence.
“We can’t allow teams, especially the French, to come away with 14 points so early in the game like that.”
It was the All Blacks’ first loss in Paris since 1973, and the first time they had lost three tests in a year since 2009.
The recent defeats will provide coach Ian Foster and assistants much to ponder during the summer. Getting steel back in the pack will be a priority.
A try to first five-eighth Romain Ntamack separated the two scored by Mauvaka, the former finishing off a movement that emphasised the French also possessed ball runners capable of causing mayhem.
The sight of All Blacks fullback Jordie Barrett kicking the ball out, when he appeared to think referee Wayne Barnes should have called for a knock-on, in the opening minutes opened the gate for the French.
Foster, having watched the crowd cheer wildly as the Webb Ellis Cup was displayed prior to kick off (France will host the tournament in 2023), wanted a bold start from his side to quieten the locals.
Instead, he got the opposite.
“We gave them a couple of opportunities, unnecessarily I think, but they were good enough to take them. And those early tries, they really got their momentum going,” Foster lamented.
“I thought we wrestled that (the momentum) back in the second half and did an extremely good job in the second quarter to pull ourselves back into the game.”
Foster wasn’t wrong; tries to Barrett, centre Rieko Ioane and No 8 Ardie Savea had the All Blacks on the cusp of a fine comeback when they trailed 27-25, but mistakes let the French off the hook.
A long kick into the French in-goal was defused by Ntamack when he beat the tackles of Richie Mo’unga and Barrett to spark a counter-attack that led to Savea being yellow carded in defence.
The French took back control when replacement midfielder David Havili’s pass, meant for Quinn Tupaea, was intercepted by Damian Penuad and he scored.
Foster had reason to reflect on those mistakes: “And perhaps if we had chased a little bit better when we chipped into their goal line, and they were smart enough to play and go down the other end. And we ended up with a yellow card.”
Being satisfied with a comeback was one thing. Having the ability to maintain the pressure is another.
“But we weren’t good enough to finish it off,” Foster admitted.