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Halfback Jimmy Cowan said there was no panic in the All Blacks when they were 14 points down late in the first half of Saturday night's test.
Cowan, who was replaced by Piri Weepu eight minutes into the second half, said the French were urgent and very physical right from the kick-off.
"We were definitely rusty. We just could not get any flow into our game and just could not get any structure going," he said.
"They did well at the breakdown. They just put two guys in and then fanned really well. They beat us up at ruck time and it was hard out there for the first 20 to 30 minutes.
"If anything, we should have been down by more. But that is the level [that has] been set and the challenge for us is to get up that step.
"It's always disappointing to lose, but we didn't lack for effort."
Cowan said the test showed the big difference between rugby at the Super 14 level and test rugby.
"The boys knew they had to go up another 20% from where they had been playing at Super 14. Now the bar has been set, we have to get up there.
"But I'm very optimistic we can get up to there. The guys are hurting. There is no doubt about that. But we want to get up to where they [the French] are."
Cowan said the beauty about modern rugby was there was another game next week.
"It is a new week and a new game and we can move on. I'm looking forward to the challenge of next week."
Cowan may have to battle for a place in the squad for the second test against the French.
Weepu impressed when he came on, and Brendon Leonard is expected back from injury.
Cowan showed a deft touch to put in a chip kick after the half-time hooter, which was collected by winger Cory Jane, whose mazy run set up No 8 Liam Messam for the try.
The Highlanders captain said the French did very well at the breakdown and praised their defence.
Few could fault his delivery to first five-eighth Stephen Donald but he did not get an armchair ride behind a pack which struggled to contain a tough French eight.
Too often, Cowan had forwards in the way in when he was trying to find Donald.
Cowan said the coaches had talked at half-time of getting more physical and keeping hold of the ball.
"The pleasing thing was we matched the physicality in the second half. I thought the leaders led well and there was no panic, out there, which I thought was good."
There was speculation yesterday that Cowan might become a target for the Blues franchise.
The Herald on Sunday reported Daniel Carter was to be the subject of a $400,000 offer from the Blues and the team was keen on a quality halfback like Cowan, as well.
Cowan is contracted to the Southland union and seems most unlikely to leave the Highlanders, where he is among the top two or three key players.