Sportal.co.nz, allblacks.com and James Mortimer 23.Dec.2013Getty Images
It was a game bearing all the hallmarks of an early season Test match with both sides introducing several new combinations. For the All Blacks that resulted in the usual clarity and precision expected of them.
France could claim something of a morale boost but were too ill-disciplined to be able to claim a moral victory. For all that they did well in having such an inexperienced side perform to stretch the home team for as long as they did. They unleashed players who look likely to make a significant impact in the future, headed by centres Florian Fritz and Wesley Fofane. Wing Adrien Plante also impressed.
However, coach Philippe Saint-Andreu will be looking for more experience in his pack after the feared French scrum assault was not delivered with several key scrums in potentially dangerous situations resulting in relieving penalties for the All Blacks.
The world champions looked anything like the ball-hungry combination who annually dominate the game when, in the final quarter, their forwards started throwing wild passes that were not held and allowed the French to retain attacking fervour.
It took a powerful sideline burst by local hero and replacement wing Rene Ranger to provide the impetus for New Zealand to claim their winning advantage, albeit the third penalty goal by first five-eighths Aaron Cruden. French fullback Yoann Huget got his head in the wrong position for the tackle on Ranger and was laid out for several minutes afterwards.
Utilising the experience of two of their key players, captain and flanker Thierry Dusautoir, and No.8 Louis Picamoles, France created the first try, nine minutes into the game, in superb fashion.
Picamoles created a turnover and the ball found Dusautoir in the backline in broken play, he fed outside-centre Fritz and he found space out wide on a curving run, then linked with his flying centres partner Fofana who demonstrated why all the mail on him had been good when racing in for the touchdown.
New Zealand made it onto the board at their third attempt, 21 minutes into the game when Cruden found the spot with his third penalty goal attempt.
The lack of combination among the New Zealanders meant it took them time to settle during the first quarter. There were plenty of attacking opportunities as Cruden marshalled the attacks, several times looking to feed back inside. But the breaks were not there initially as Dusautoir and Picamoles dominated the ruck.
France still found it difficult to get out of their own half and when a 32nd minute kick was launched to fullback Israel Dagg on the New Zealand 10m line, he took the kick superbly and turned in the tackle. When the ball emerged it came quickly to right wing Ben Smith and he decided to go for the gap on the outside of Dusautoir.
He sped into space with the French defence absent and when challenged he looked inside to find halfback Aaron Smith in support and he ran in the try to give the All Blacks the lead, 10-7 for the first tim in the game.
But when New Zealand got off-side at a mid-field chargedown halfback Maxime Machenaud landed the penalty goal four minutes later which came after a penetrating run by right wing Adrien Plante.
French delight was soon undone however when Picamoles lost the ball in a ruck. New Zealand cleared the ball quickly and second five-eighths Ma'a Nonu raced onto the ball and punched through, linked with Aaron Smith, who looked likely to score a second, before passing to supporting flanker Sam Cane who scored for Cruden to add the conversion as the All Blacks took a 17-10 lead to half-time.
France lost halfback Machenaud in the first five minutes of the second half which resulted in goal-kicking duties changing to first five-eighths Camille Lopez who landed his first attempt, a penalty goal, six minutes into the second half.
France had a chance to score with a succession of pick and goes at the New Zealand line but the defence held and then at a scrum close to the line the French were penalised when prop Thomas Domingo took the scrum down.
The All Blacks cleared and Cruden landed a 59th minute penalty goal to extend the lead to seven points. However, a turnover just inside the All Blacks' half allowed France to build an attack and it was Plante who broke the defence and fed to Fritz inside. A certain try was lost when Picamoles dropped the ball three metres out from the unprotected All Blacks' line.
It was a first step in retaining the Dave Gallaher Cup for New Zealand, but hard work lies ahead in anticipation of a much tougher contest with a more experienced French combination available for the second Test in Christchurch.
New Zealand 23 (Aaron Smith, Sam Cane tries; Aaron Cruden con, 3 pen) France 13 (Wesley Fofana try; Maxime Machenaud con, pen, Camille Lopez pen) HT: 17-10
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