It was a shame two controversial decisons by English referee Luke Pearce clouded what was a magnificent second half recovery from the All Blacks in last Saturday night’s Eden Park rugby test.
Sure, the sin-binning of French lock Paul Gabrillagues for a suspected a high tackle on Ryan Crotty was wrong, allowing the home team to capitalise with a couple of brilliant tries after trailing 8-11 at halftime. But I can sympathise with his decision not to red card anyone in the triple head clash which stunned Remy Grosso, Sam Cane and Ofa Tu’ungafasi and left the French wing with two fractures to his skull.
Some accidents do happen in contact sports like rugby despite the best intentions of the players to avoid them.
Up until Gabrillagues’ temporary dismissal, France showed why they had the best defensive record in the Six Nations championships.
But once their machine showed cracks, the All Blacks capitalised with ruthless efficiency, especially when Damian McKenzie came on in the last quarter, scored a scorcher, set up juggernaut Ngani Laumaupe and just missed another in the corner.
Interestingly, McKenzie’s brilliance shone brightest out wide after he received perfectly timed passes at pace to split asunder what had been a tight defence. That is the beauty of having two unselfish tradesmen like Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown as your centre combination.
They have gelled nicely in the past and should be allowed to cement their relationship although there is also a case for giving the powerful Laumaupe more game time.
Once again the Aaron Smith/Beauden Barrett combination operated superbly with Barrett also twice featuring on cover defence when France looked dangerous.
Brother Jordie made a good fist of fullback until replaced by McKenzie and Rieko Ioane (twice) and Ben Smith scored tries against two swift French wings.
However the star of the show was livewire hooker Codie Taylor who set up several tries out wide while still doing the grind in the tight stuff.
No 8 Luke Whitelock, so strong on defence and in the lineout, ran strongly and linked nicely while replacement loosehead prop Karl Tu’inukuafe destroyed the French in his first international scrum.
With Australia beating Six Nations champion Ireland 18-9 and South Africa recovering from 24-3 down to beat England 42-39, both look have sent signals to the All Blacks they won’t by anyone’s bunnies in the Rugby Championship.
Meanwhile it was satisfying to see Shaun Johnson celebrate his 150th NRL game for the Warriors in style when they played one of their finest matches in beating Manly 34-14 before 17,000-plus enthralled Christchurch fans on Saturday.
Especially pleasing was his willingness to hit the line at pace, being rewarded with one lovely try and setting up one of three scored by big Tongan wing David Fusitu’a in the second. The
Fusitu’a hat-trick took his season tally to a remarkable 15, three clear of his nearest challenger.
Not only is he an outstanding finisher but he’s a champion at rising high to claim any high balls booted in his direction. As one of several players who chose Tonga over New Zealand last year, he is a huge loss to the Kiwis.
Another who sparks the Warriors this season is hooker Issac Luke, a gutsy player blessed with a smart brain.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author