CASTRES, FRANCE – New Zealand head to Twickenham to face England this weekend with their perfect record for 2013, but spirited France almost gave as good as they got at a sodden Stade de France on Saturday.
It’s probably safe to say that – but for the 15 crucial minutes between the two All Black tries early in the second half – Les Bleus absolutely, positively, did give as good as they got.
It all so nearly started so well for the visitors. Only a combination of a flying Maxime Medard, the corner flag, the video referee… and the small matter of a knock on… prevented Cory Jane scoring his 17th try for the All Blacks in the first minute of the game.
After that, France held the upper hand in possession and territory for much of the game. Morgan Parra matched Dan Carter kick for kick, and the Clermont scrum half formed a more-than useful axis at 9-10 with Remi Tales. Wesley Forfana, who was deservedly named France’s man of the match, did exactly what he does week in, week out for his club. Medard and Toulouse clubmates Yuann Huget and Florian Fritz tackled and ran all night long; and Brice Dulin not only scored the try that renewed French faith but also posed a threat every time he got his hands on the ball.
The forwards, too, appeared to trouble the All Black pack. It’s not to say they dominated, but they were able to get the occasional shove on in the scrum and fought hard in the lineouts, rucks and mauls.
A week of rain in the run-up to the battle for the Dave Gallaher Cup meant that no one expected the feast of running rugby the two sides were able to put on – but a double-whammy of brutal defending and crucial errors at key moments meant the game was threatening to turn into a kick-off between Carter and Parra. But then the relatively inexperienced Charles Piutau stepped up the role of game changer.
First, he scored a try from nothing, chasing down his own kick to touch down ahead of the despairing Parra. Then, his sleight of hand in the tackle left Kieran Read with little to do other than look surprised and delighted as he barged over the line unopposed.
Home fans’ fears that this was the beginning of a final-quarter rout were unfounded, however, as Les Bleus responded immediately. Their forwards were the battering ram that knocked down every stage of All Black defence, before Tales released the rapier Dulin to dive over and make the scores 19-26 with 10 minutes remaining.
The fans could sense an unlikely comeback, but – with La Marseillaise ringing round Stade de France – Les Bleus were unable to provide the flourish the majority of the 79,000 crowd were hoping for.
This weekend, Philippe Saint-Andre’s rejuvenated side face Tonga at Le Havre – and it will be a game he looks forward to, especially as it comes after a performance so positively different from recent abject French turnouts.
Tales, at 29, may be a late arrival to the international scene – but the Castres’ fly-half showed plenty of ambition and adventure, a cool head under pressure, and no little skill as he linked neatly with Parra, Forfana, Medard and – not unexpectedly – clubmate Dulin time after time.
Despite the return of Freddie Michalak to the squad ahead of the game as a replacement for Camille Lopez, who has an prior appointment with the disciplinary committee this week, Tales should enjoy a run at 10, which means Parra – who missed three penalties in the first half – may well be the one under greater pressure.
But he may get a rest against Tonga ahead of the South African challenge later in the month.
How the rest of the starting XV looks against an side likely to provide much less of a threat than New Zealand remains to be seen. Montpellier flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo has recovered from the shoulder injury that kept him out of the New Zealand game, which means that Saint-Andre is likely to ring the changes for the Tonga clash.