All Blacks dig in to deny French XV

Liam Squire scores for the All Blacks against the French Barbarians. Photo: Reuters
Liam Squire scores for the All Blacks against the French Barbarians. Photo: Reuters
This may not have been a test match - but it was as close as it gets.

On a testing night in Lyon, many of the All Blacks' second stringers rose to the occasion to stake claims for more time in the coveted jersey. All, including six on debut, were also given an insight into just how much of a step up this is.

The All Blacks beat the France XV side 28-23 this morning (NZ time).

Fuelled by almost 60,000 locals, the electric atmosphere brought a familiar test match edge. On their part, the French delivered, forcing the young, emerging All Blacks to work for absolutely everything.

The All Blacks' last mid-week match, back in 2008 at Munster's Thomond Park in Limerick, finished 18-16. Likewise, this was never going to be straightforward. Not with the French out to avenge their loss last weekend in Paris.

Contrasting approaches were evident. While the French took shots at goal to pursue victory, the All Blacks turned down points to chase tries. That was until the final 15 minutes, when heat really came on and tables turned as France went into full comeback mode.

France's Henry Chavancy gets across the line.Photo: Reuters
France's Henry Chavancy gets across the line.Photo: Reuters

Locals were in full voice throughout. They sniffed an upset. The French led by one at halftime but it looked as though tries from Patrick Tuipulotu and Ngani Laumape, two of the All Blacks' best, had pushed them clear.

But the French kept coming. Under huge pressure, with 10 minutes left and 10 points the difference, Dominic Bird pinched a crucial lineout steal on the All Blacks' line after Jack Goodhue received his yellow card.

Replacement French first five-eighth Jules Plisson missed a late conversion to bring them within three in the closing stages. The All Blacks then desperately defended their line, and produced one huge final scrum to seal victory - Goodhue kicking the ball into touch.

It was as tense as can be; the final score a reflection of an epic battle.

For the most part, midfield pairing Goodhue and Laumape, involved twice in the lead up to Matt Duffie's first try at this level, were excellent. They carried strongly and, on the whole, made great decisions to give a preview of the future. Laumape got it wrong once, with his cutout ball snaffled for a runaway try against the run of play. And other than his card Goodhue shone.

Liam Squire, in his 52 minute stint after returning from illness, was immense. Richie Mo'unga looked at home off the bench, and captain Luke Whitelock was busy.

The French came hard early. They targeted the All Blacks through the lineout drive and, like many have this year, up the middle of the ruck.

The All Blacks did well to survive the initial onslaught - repelling several drives, as they did throughout, and gaining one tighthead from a scrum close to their line.

From turnovers, quick taps and lineouts the All Blacks were lethal. They looked to up the tempo wherever possible, and looked good when space was created wide, where Squire capitalised roaming the left edge. That opening strike was exactly what the All Blacks sought. Continuity and patience after a breakout from their 22 was rewarded. But they weren't always so in control or fluid.

Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Lima Sopoaga did their best to take the right options and direct play but the French made life difficult by attacking the breakdown and rushing the midfield.

On defence, Squire was punishing and Tuipulotu knocked out French No 8 Marco Tauleigne with one huge hit. In his best performance in a black jersey, the big Blues lock also powered his way over for a crucial second half try.

One the edges, the All Blacks were exposed on occasions when they couldn't jam in and shut the movement down.

But, by the finish, their defence held firm.

What a valuable lesson this will be for a young and inexperienced team.

All Blacks 28: Liam Squire, Matt Duffie, Ngani Laumape, Patrick Tuipulotu tries, Lima Sopoaga con 3, Richie Mo'unga con

French XV 23: Gabriel Lacroix, Henry Chavancy 2 tries, Francois Trinh-Duc con, pen, Jules Plisson pen

Half time: 15-14

- By Liam NapierĀ 

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