Rugby Union: All Blacks on rampage

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New Zealand 54

France 7

THE ALL BLACKS laid down an ominous World Cup marker when they overwhelmed and outclassed France in a one-off Test at Athletic Park, condemning the Tricolores to their worst-ever Test defeat.

Hometown hero Tana Umaga, who had replaced Jonah Lomu on the wing, scored three tries and Christian Cullen and Justin Marshall two each as New Zealand scored seven tries to one, prompting the French coach to tip the All Blacks as likely World Cup champions.

The loss was France's heaviest in international rugby, beating their 52-10 defeat by South Africa in Paris in 1997 and, to complete a dismal day, the tourists had replacement hooker Jean-Jacques Crenca sent off for stamping five minutes from the end. Crenca, who had only been on the pitch for eight minutes, was later suspended for six weeks after admitting the offence to a judicial committee.

"The All Blacks showed their speed and power today, this is a very good team," the French coach Jean-Claude Skrela said. "We struggled against the wind in the first half and I must say we were outplayed in the second half by what I think will be an unbeatable team in 1999."

An inexperienced French side managed one try after the break, through their new fly-half Hugo Mola, but overall they were no match for the fast- attacking All Blacks, who continually brought their exciting backs, particularly wingers Umaga and Cullen into play. Andrew Mehrtens, who kicked 19 points, used the biting wind behind him in the first half to pin the French down with long diagonal kicks.

The tourists, who managed to beat Samoa but suffered embarrassing losses to Tonga and New Zealand A on their short South Pacific tour following a disastrous Five Nations championship, were exposed all over the field by the All Blacks.

New Zealand's forwards showed much improvement from last season when they lost five successive Tests. Front rowers Kees Meeuws, Anton Oliver and Carl Hoeft wore down their opponents, locks Robin Brooke and Norm Maxwell cleaned out the rucks well and the loose forwards, led by the captain Taine Randell, gave efficient support while scrum-half Marshall made a great return to form.

While their coach John Hart said Saturday's performance was a step up from their previous two games, against New Zealand A and Samoa, he thought the real test would come in the opening tri-nations match against South Africa on 10 July. "We won't know where we are until we've played the Springboks," Hart said. "I thought we played well for the first 30 minutes and for 30 minutes in the second half. We lost a few balls in the rucks and mauls."

France: X Garbajosa; O Sarramea, T Castaignede (C Lamaison, 55), E Ntamack, C Dominici; H Mola, P Mignoni (F Galthie, 55); C Califano (J J Crenca, 50), R Ibanez (capt), F Tournaire, F Pelous, D Auradou, A Coste, C Juillet (J-L Aqua, 70), O Magne.

New Zealand: J Wilson; C Cullen, A Ieremia, D Gibson, T Umaga; A Mehrtens (T Brown, 70), J Marshall; C Hoeft, A Oliver, K Meeuws,

N Maxwell (I Jones, 75), R Brooke, D Mika (A Blowers, 60), T Randell (capt), J Kronfeld (M Hammett, 60).

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia)