PARIS, France — The Stade de France rocked and rolled with rambunctious celebration on Friday night as the host nation achieved the dream start to Rugby World Cup 2023.
Les Bleus rode a stirring second-half performance to recover from a breathtaking opening from the All Blacks — who scored in just the second minute and looked the far more dangerous team for much of the first half — by adjusting their kicking game and drawing New Zealand into ill-discipline, which eventually combined to result in the second-half sin-binning of Will Jordan.
It finished 27-13 after an absorbing 80 minutes played in the sweatiest of Parisian conditions in a game that will more than likely have decided the pecking order in Pool A. Barring an incredible upset from Italy, France will top the group ahead of New Zealand with both teams to await the results of a fascinating Pool B over the next few weeks.
“It’s a heck of an opening game for a World Cup,” All Blacks coach Ian Foster said. “It was everything we anticipated against a French team that really threw a lot at us.
“A great crowd, great build-up and congratulations to France. I thought they were the better team on the night. They certainly earned their win. It doesn’t change a lot. We’ve got to find another direction in this pool and get excited about the next three games.”
But this game could have gone badly awry for the hosts, who watched Ioane tear through the heart of their defence in just the second minute, before a quick tap from an early Jaco Peyper penalty allowed Beauden Barrett to cross kick for Mark Telea, who scooped up a wobbly ball to give the All Blacks a near-perfect opening, Richie Mo’unga’s missed conversion aside.
Kicking would prove a key theme from that point onwards, as expected. Both France and the All Blacks are two of the best from the boot, but it was the visitors who dominated that part of the game for much of the first half.
The All Blacks kicked with better depth, bringing their chasers into the game, and dropped little balls just in behind the French defence which often brought about reward. France, meanwhile, went too deep into the box, allowing Mo’unga and Barrett time and space to plot their reply, which was often better contested than any French offering.
Both sides seemed to be overcome by the occasion inside the first quarter, with helter-skelter offloads and sweeping sideways runs often doing more harm than good, while All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot was twice pinged at the scrum, which allowed sharp-shooter Thomas Ramos to keep France’s scoreboard ticking over despite a mounting defensive load.
The hosts had made more than double the All Blacks’ tackles to half time [95-40], and only just held out one final attack from the visitors on the stroke of the hooter after runs from Mo’unga and Dalton Papali’i, who had shifted to No. 7 after the late withdrawal of skipper Sam Cane.
After a build-up dominated by injuries to Brodie Retallick — who made a shock return to the bench to help cover Cane’s omission — Shannon Frizell and Tyrel Lomax, the withdrawal of the All Blacks skipper was another brutal blow for New Zealand.
France certainly needed a rethink at halftime, or to at least be prepared to play slightly more rugby than they had in the first stanza, and they charged out from the sheds to scramble the restart and immediately set the tone for the second 40.
Or so it seemed, as only a couple of minutes later France found themselves back behind their own line waiting for Mo’unga to line up a second touchline conversion. Yet again it was a short kick that did the damage, this time from an unlikely source in stand-in skipper Ardie Savea, winger Will Jordan gobbling up the bouncing ball before Ioane ripped a cut-out pass on the bounce to Telea, who sprinted down the touchline amid deafening boos from a home crowd that was adamant Ioane’s pass had come forwards out of the hand.
It was checked by the TMO, but there would be no overturning the decision. Mo’unga’s conversion was wide — he missed both touchline efforts — and while New Zealand had the lead at 13-9, it felt like the momentum, oddly, had already shifted in the hosts’ direction.
Suddenly their forwards were running with purpose, none more so than lock Thibaud Flament, while replacement hooker Peato Mauvaka also proved a handful with ball in hand.
Where the prospect of their first-half defensive workload looked set to catch up with France, the exact opposite in fact occurred and perhaps they drew strength from the most incredible atmosphere Fabien Galthie’s team could have ever dreamed of.
Renditions of Le Marseillaise and cries of ‘Allez les Bleus’ were belted out long before Peyper blew his opening whistle; the home fans had been in the mood to party all afternoon and into the evening, and by the second half their heroes were ready to really give them something to sing about.
Crucially, France captain Dupont was able to better control the tempo of the match in the second 40 as his forward pack started to dominate their All Blacks counterparts. The 2021 World Rugby Player of the Year and the tournament’s poster boy also improved his own kicking, too, and shuffled his run and pass options nicely to keep New Zealand guessing.
While Dupont is the tournament’s superstar, there are few better finishers across the 20 teams than winger Damian Penaud. But not even he could beat a desperate Mo’unga to the corner, the All Blacks playmaker denying Penaud with a sensational piece of defence reminiscent of his effort against the Springboks’ Cheslin Kolbe in Yokohama four years ago, one that kept the home fans waiting for their first five-pointer of the tournament.
Those clad in white and blue wouldn’t have to wait much longer however, as a clever switch of play from Dupont and a sumptuous draw and pass from Matthieu Jallibert this time put Penaud over untouched 15 minutes into the second half.
Ramos’ conversion made the score 16-13 and from there the All Blacks were always fighting an uphill battle. Their cause wasn’t helped by the sin-binning of Jordan just three minutes later, the winger colliding with Ramos in a nasty aerial collision that left the officials with little choice but to issue a yellow card.
Ramos nailed one penalty while Jordan was off and another soon after his return, before replacement Melvin Jaminet capped a wonderful second-half surge from the hosts with France’s second try, which again came from a kick.
And that was the story of this absorbing contest, a game that ebbed and flowed on the boots of its chief protagonists.
Where New Zealand had dominated from the boot in the first half, in the second stanza it was the hosts who found space, got the bounce of the ball, and generally managed the tempo with greater success.
Star No. 8 Gregory Alldritt was a force on both sides of the ball, making 71 metres on 13 carries and adding 14 tackles for good measure. The La Rochelle back-rower ably supported by Flement, Charles Ollivant and Mauvaka, who had been an early replacement for an injured Julien Marchand.
“It was important to get off to a good start after all the work we’ve put in preparing for this match. We were under a lot of pressure in the first half, and we found it hard to break free,” France coach Fabien Galthie said.
“They scored very early, rather easily. Then we lost Julien Marchand. We started the match in the worst possible way – but that’s all part of the game. We got a bit caught up in the atmosphere. But we went into the dressing room in front, thanks to our discipline.
“Then in the second half, our finishers enabled us to regain control of the match, but not immediately. Again, they scored from our mistakes when we could have done better.
“But we won the arm-wrestle. That enabled us to keep in touch with New Zealand, particularly in our weaker moments, and then meant we regained control of the second half, and also meant Thomas Ramos could keep us in touch with his kicking.”
The All Blacks, meanwhile, will lament their discipline. From the back-to-back scrum penalties given away by de Groot, to Jordan’s sin-binning, and some inaccurate breakdown work, Foster’s team conceded 12 penalties to France’s four.
“Pressure I think. There were too many that came in the last 25 minutes of the game,” Foster said of his side’s indiscipline. “You’ve got to give France some credit for that.
“Will was a bit clumsy with a few aerial things and the second one hurt us. It’s been an area that I think we’ve worked particularly well on this year. We weren’t quite good enough in that space. When you’re clumsy in that space, it hurts. We’ve got to get better. Early on I thought our discipline was pretty good.”
There were flashes of brilliance in New Zealand’s attack, no doubt, and their first-half endeavour probably felt one try short of what it deserved. But where that level of intensity and execution might have been enough to see them to Rugby Championship glory earlier in the year, it was never going to cut the mustard against a France team that was desperate to kickstart a tournament that has been long in the planning.
The rest of Pool A will, meanwhile, likely be a formality from here, unless Italy can hit new heights in their improving recent history to take down either of France or New Zealand. France’s date with their European neighbours comes on the final weekend of pool play, which leaves plenty of time for their adoring home fans to celebrate a night that will live long in the memory.
There are clearly bigger and shinier prizes to chase later in the tournament, but for now the home fans will toast a team that could have very easily got the wobbles, but one that instead found its groove to confirm its place among the tournament favourites.
All roads lead back to Stade de France at the end of October and while there are many more balls to be kicked, tackles to be made and tries to be scored, between now and then, Friday night’s victory has only added to the faith and expectation of a home nation desperate to see the Webb Ellis Cup in Dupont’s grasp in eight weeks’ time.
In this brilliant era of French rugby, Les Bleus have taken another step towards achieving something truly special, but clearly there is still much work to do.