By Brendan O’Brien, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
New Zealand 62 France 13
Just as we feared. Actually, no, this was worse. Much worse.
New Zealand made light of all the pre-match history lessons, dodgy omens and wishful thinking at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday night, putting an awful France side to the sword with a superlative performance in the second of the four Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
The All Blacks, reigning champions from the tournament they hosted in 2011, looked like champions-elect with a display that brings to an end the disastrous four-year term of French head coach Philippe Saint-Andre who is to be replaced by Toulouse legend Guy Noves.
How bad was this? Nine tries conceded kinda bad.
This was the most points France have ever shipped in a Test match and it was two points shy of equalling their heaviest loss, a 61-10 defeat to the All Blacks in June of 2007. Their four heaviest defeats? Every one of them have been at the hands of last night’s tormentors.
This was also the second-heaviest beating inflicted on any side at this tournament. Only Australia’s clattering of the Uruguayans by 65-3 in Pool A was more one-sided than this. Yes, Uruguay. That is the kind of company France now keep.
France conceded 55 points to England in Twickenham on the last day of the Six Nations earlier this year, too. New Zealand took just 67 minutes to rack that up in the Welsh capital, marking a new low in the modern history of a French side that is now a shameful parody of its former glories.
Cardiff had crackled with electricity all day, Irish and Argentinian fans mingling with those of last night’s participants ahead of their own last eight tie on Sunday lunchtime, and among them mingled a considerable number of Welsh supporters soured by their earlier loss to South Africa in London.
Talk of France’s historic defeats of New Zealand in the 1999 World Cup in Twickenham and the 2007 version right here in the Millennium Stadium had abounded all week, but the evidence of the pool stages pointed to a more straightforward victory for Steve Hansen’s favourites.
So it proved. And how.
The Southern Hemisphere side led 29-13 at the break with four tries already banked. With 60% possession in that period, they enjoyed the majority of the territory as well against a French side that lost out-half Frederic Michalak to a leg injury after just a dozen minutes.
A divisive choice at ten, Michalak had time to contribute to his side’s downfall in his short time on the pitch, his clearing kick from the French 22 being blocked by Brodie Retallick and returned by the giant lock himself for the first try.
Michalak limped off soon after the conversion from Dan Carter, who had opened the scoring on seven minutes with a penalty. Scott Spedding had landed a three-pointer from inside his own half to cancel that out while another from Morgan Parra followed the first try.
At 10-6, France were in the game, but this New Zealand side is one that can kill a game in moments and, when Guilhem Guirado charged down a Carter drop goal attempt, it created the chaos from which Nehe Milner-Skudder sidestepped two Frenchman to scamper in from down the right.
Julian Savea claimed the next five-pointer, but it was one sprinkled with Carter’s magic after the ten launched a Garryowen claimed brilliantly by full-back Ben Smith and continued the move with a delicious over-the-shoulder lay-off to the wing.
Carter’s two-pointer left it 24-6. The widest gap in that miracle game in ’99 had been 24-10, but France threatened something similar ever so briefly when Louis Picamoles, their rampaging No.8, broke upfield from the game’s first scrum and into open ground.
Noa Nakaitaci took the move on up the right flank before Picamoles provided the finish and Parra’s kick made it 24-13. Hopes raised, they were soon dashed again with three Frenchman bouncing off Savea a lá Jonah Lomu in South Africa in 1995 as he touched down again.
The fear even then was that the All Blacks could put 50 points-plus on a French side that was well-beaten by Ireland only six days before and any semblance of doubt over the outcome was dispelled after 50 minutes when Jerome Kaino claimed the fifth try.
It was a score hatched in their own 22 when Richie McCaw was pinged for entering a ruck from the side. The Kiwi skipper compounded that sin by clutching the ball as Parra attempted to relieve him of it and he received a light brush of Picamoles’ closed fist for his troubles.
It was a nothing moment, but it was caught on camera and Nigel Owens had to send the Frenchman to the bin for ten minutes because of it. McCaw, meanwhile, was still on the turf receiving ‘attention’ for the most insignificant of contacts.
54' Back-to-back penalties for France and they go to the corner. The Fields Of Athenry is still murmuring around the stadium. #NZvFRA— BreakingNews.ie (@breakingnewsie) October 17, 2015
By now, the thousands of Irish in the crowd were creating their own entertainment with renditions of the ‘Fields of Athenry’, but New Zealand showed no signs of letting their hair down and Savea claimed his hat-trick from a turnover and breakaway with 21 minutes still to go.
Kieran Read added a seventh before Tawera Kerr-Barlow popped up off the bench for two of his own as the Kiwis ran riot. The final note of the night was one of Saint-Andre being booed by his own fans as he gave an interview pitchside.
For him, the nightmare is over at least.
New Zealand move on to London and a semi-final with South Africa.
New Zealand: B Smith; N Milner-Skudder, C Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; D Carter, A Smith; W Crockett, D Coles, O Franks; B Retallick, S Whitelock; J Kaino, R McCaw, K Read.
Replacements: J Moody for Crockett (28); B Barrett for Milner-Skudder (HT); C Faumuina for Franks and SB Williams for C Smith (both 52); K Mealamu for Coles (61); V Vito for Kaino and T Kerr-Barlow for A Smith (67); S Cane for McCaw (71).
France: S Spedding; N Nakaitaci, A Dumoulin, W Fofana, B Dulin; F Michalak, M Parra; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani; P Papé, Y Maestri; T Dusatoir, B Le Roux, L Picamoles.
Replacements: R Tales for Michalak (12); Y Nyanga for Papé (48); S Szarzewski for Guilardo (57); M Bastareaud for Dumoulin, V Debaty for Ben Arous and N Mas for Slimani (all 61); D Chouly for Picamoles (73); R Kockett for Parra (71).
Referee: N Owens (WRU).