WATCH: 'He doesn't know the rules' - Sonny Bill Williams was binned and conceded a bizarre penalty try after 'brain explosion' in Paris
New Zealand were once again accused of delivering a “patchy” performance in their 38-18 win over France, but when their patch is 40 minutes of unadulterated brilliance does it really matter?
This is the problem when standards are set so ridiculously high that nothing less than a perfect 80 minutes is deemed acceptable. France did win the second half 13-7 but that was a few months after the Lord Mayor’s show. And what a show it was, Beauden Barrett acting as the puppet master deploying Reiko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams and Damian McKenzie as his marionettes of mayhem. Five tries were scored through Dane Coles, Waiseke Naholo, Sam Cane and Ryan Crotty, who had the honour of bringing up New Zealand’s 2000th try in international rugby.
After the feast came the famine. France capitalised upon the concession of 11 second-half penalties by New Zealand as well as 80 per possession, although Naholo’s second try gave New Zealand the last word.
Head coach Steve Hansen’s chief concerns afterwards revolved around captain Kieran Read and Coles who were both withdrawn injured and are doubts for the match against Scotland on Saturday. Read had a slight groin strain while Coles came off in the 23rd minute with a knee injury that will require a scan.
In contrast to the F-bomb dropping, notebook thrashing anger of Eddie Jones, the England head coach, Hansen rated his frustration levels at 5/10 – a missed tube or bad cup of tea perhaps – citing the absence of more than 300 Test caps worth of experience, including four members of their leadership group.
“It is very difficult for any team to hold the momentum for the whole duration of the contest,” Hansen said. “Once we lost momentum, the French team gained confidence and put us under pressure. I know it is going to happen because the team we have got at the moment, we are missing a lot of people. You have to replace experience with inexperience. As coaches we have to be patient and making sure on game day we don’t get too frustrated. We scored five tries so that’s not too bad a day at the office.”
Taken in isolation the second half was far from disastrous. Being forced to mount a defensive rearguard may have even served a greater purpose than their first-half attacking clinic. Particularly so in the absence of Coles, Read, and, for ten minutes, Williams after he was yellow-carded for deliberately batting fly half Antoine Belleau’s crossfield kick out of the deadball area.
It was an act of stupidity which also resulted in a penalty try and a further penalty while he was in the sin-bin. “The Sonny one he doesn't know the rules because he was playing league,” Hansen said. “It was a good lesson for Sonny. He’ll know next time to catch it rather than hit it over the line.”
France were also much improved after a first half which coach Guy Noves deemed unacceptable. “The first half did not match the standard of an international team,” Noves aid. “We respect the New Zealand team and their qualities and we were definitely not up to the standard.”
With 18 players out injured, Noves was at least encouraged by the performances of Belleau and scrum half Antoine Dupont on their first starts. It seems like a whole generation ago that France had a settled half-back combination and at 21 and 20 respectively there is an opportunity to build an axis for the future.
Both teams, or rather their reserves, will reconvene in Lyons on Tuesday night before New Zealand head to Edinburgh. Ominously, the All Blacks are still looking for that perfect 80 minute performance.