New Zealand 40 France 13 (Rugby World Cup third/fourth playoff)
Telstra Stadium, Sydney
Thursday, 20 November 2003 10pm (NZT)
Referee: Chris White (England)
Half-time: New Zealand 14 France 6
For New Zealand fans, the All Blacks' six-tries to-one victory over France in Thursday night's Rugby World Cup playoff could only be partially satisfying.
The 40-13 win was, on the scoreboard, a substantial win over a side that can beat any team in the world on its day. But it still had shortcomings.
Namely: loose play, too many turnovers, and the potential to concede points at crucial moments. Like they did on Saturday against the Wallabies and throughout the tournament.
It was fortunate that the French fielded a "second-string" side and therefore were not at top form. Nonetheless, any French side is capable, whatever their level of preparation, to take it to their opponents. It is one of the glories of Gallic rugby.
Thursday's game was not their night. But not before they ran the All Blacks close. Well-executed first half tries to Chris Jack and Doug Howlett were balanced by a try to Pepito Elhorga early in the second half. Dimiti Yachvili's conversion, on top of his penalty and dropped goal brought the score to 14-13. It was now anyone's game, on the scoreboard at least.
But with two successive tries to the All Blacks by Joe Rokocoko and Brad Thorn (the latter from the kickoff after halfback Steve Devine and Doug Howlett combined together well) the All Blacks' brief flashback to the 1999 playoff with South Africa was averted.
Mils Muliaina and Marty Holah finished off the All Blacks scoring, which coupled with conversions to Daniel Carter (at times the most reliable All Black kicker of the tournament) and Leon MacDonald made the final score 40-13. It would be regarded as a convincing win in any other test match.
It also meant getting third place in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. At least it was a step up from 1999. But in the end the All Blacks still didn't do the job they were selected for.
Coach John Mitchell says a lack of maturity was a factor in the All Blacks bailing out of the tournament when they did. He didn't mean that in a perjorative sense: namely these were young whipper-snappers who didn't have a clue. He meant, at least from this correspondent's point of view, that they "will peak in the near future".
At the risk of sounding ungracious, haven't a number of New Zealanders been bemoaning the absence of experienced players like Christian Cullen, Andrew Mehrtens and Anton Oliver from this year's squad?
And by the time Mitchell uttered those words, hadn't an England team dominated by players over 30 just made it through to the World Cup final? And indeed on Saturday night, in extra time, before a parochial Australian crowd, through a last-minute dropped goal, took the World Cup away with them by 20-17?
Unlike New Zealand?
A team that lost to that fired-up Australian team in the semi-finals? (Just in case we needed to be reminded!)
John Mitchell and Reuben Thorne have a good team of rugby players, all worthy wearers of the All Black jersey. The Bledisloe Cup and Tri Nations would have been a great haul in the days before the World Cup (Although, of course the Tri-Nations only came in nine years after the first World Cup). In fact, it's not a bad haul now.
But the first World Cup was 16 years ago. We have come to regard it as the pinnacle of the game. New Zealand has fallen short once again and now has to wait for France in four years time, the 20th anniversary of when the host nation and New Zealand played for the William Webb Ellis trophy.
Clive Woodward stayed on from 1999 and came through to the top. He, Martin Johnson and their entire team deserve congratulations on a fine effort, raising them to the heights of England's 1966 World Cup Soccer-winning team. Perhaps John Mitchell, who now has to apply for his position again, deserves another chance.
But if he goes, this correspondent, for one, will not be surprised. Last Saturday's game was one disappointment too many for All Black supporters. And the All Blacks third-placing is small consolation.