Magical Mehrtens shines in All Blacks revenge mission

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The Independent Online

A the end of a week in which the tight finish has been de rigueur, it seemed for 30 minutes at the Stade de France last night as if we might just be witnessing another contest that would be too close to call. But in the end there was no need for a recount as New Zealand threw an impenetrable black wall in front of their line, and Andrew Mehrtens kicked them to victory with 29 points. Not until the result had been inked in with New Zealand ahead by 39-12 with five minutes remaining, did France really reveal the best of themselves.

A the end of a week in which the tight finish has been de rigueur, it seemed for 30 minutes at the Stade de France last night as if we might just be witnessing another contest that would be too close to call. But in the end there was no need for a recount as New Zealand threw an impenetrable black wall in front of their line, and Andrew Mehrtens kicked them to victory with 29 points. Not until the result had been inked in with New Zealand ahead by 39-12 with five minutes remaining, did France really reveal the best of themselves.

New Zealand began in rusty fashion, when Christian Cullen spilled a simple pass from Jonah Lomu under no pressure, and the giant wing was then left flat-footed by David Bory as France ran from deep. By then, Christophe Lamaison, who had been New Zealand's nemesis in their World Cup semi-final defeat at Twickenham last October, had stroked over three long-range penalties. Mehrtens then tied the scores with his third successful shot at goal, though France were looking the more assured.

There was no self-assurance from New Zealand's forwards in broken play, but from France there was precious little sign of the vibrant, inventive and resourceful football which exposed the All Blacks so mercilessly when these two last met.

However, once Mehrtens kicked New Zealand into the lead with two more penalties, to another from Lamaison, things began to hot up. France spoiled two promising attacks when the ball went to ground, and then Lomu was into his most menacing stride along the left flank, only to be cut down by a marvellously committed tackle from Franck Comba.

In the dying moments of the half, Justin Marshall broke free but the move faltered when Mehrtens - equalling Grant Fox's New Zealand record of 46 appearances in the No 10 shirt - was a finger tip away from the France line.

Within two minutes of the restart, Mehrtens added three points as he drilled over his sixth penalty when France were penalised for not releasing at the tackle. Not for the first time, the home side were incensed at Wayne Erickson's decision, though the Australian referee's next award in New Zealand's favour was to have even direr consequences for France.

The French pack had worked their way to within sight of the All Black's line only to concede a penalty. While they were still disputing that, Cullen had made 40 metres and found Tana Umaga at his shoulder. The big centre was eventually stopped, though Doug Howlett was at his shoulder to score a stunning try.

There was an inevitability about the conversion and Mehrtens' seventh penalty, before he put the match well beyond France's reach with an enormous effort from 10 metres inside his own half.

To their credit, France battered away at the All Blacks' line. First they worked Olivier Magne across, but the pass was adjudged forward. France kept up the pressure, but Cullen's try from Lomu's suspiciously forward pass was allowed to stand, which just about summed up France's night, even though Philippe Bernat-Salles and Fabien Pelous sneaked over to give the final score some respectability.

France: X Garbojasa (Toulouse); T Lombard (Stade Français), R Dourthe (Béziers), F Comba (Stade Français), D Bory (Montferrand); C Lamaison (Agen), F Galthié (Colomiers); S Marconnet, F Landreau (both Stade Français), C Califano (Toulouse), D Auradou (Stade Français), F Pelous (capt, Toulouse), C Moni (Stade Français), C Juillet (Stade Français), O Magne (Montferrand). Replacements: P De Villiers (Stade Français) for Califano, 61; O Brouzet (Northampton) for Auradou, 74; S Betsen (Biarritz) for Moni, 61; P Bernat-Salles (Biarritz) for Lombard, 51.

New Zealand: C Cullen (Wellington); D Howlett (Auckland), T Umaga (Wellington), D Gibson (Canterbury), J Lomu (Wellington); A Mehrtens, J Marshall; G Feek (all Canterbury), A Oliver (Otago), G Somerville, T Blackadder (capt), N Maxwell, R Thorne, S Robertson (all Canterbury), R Cribb (North Harbour). Replacements: G Slater (Taranaki) for Somerville, 71; T Flavell (North Harbour) for Maxwell, 30; C Spencer (Auckland) for Gibson, 30-40.

Referee: W Erickson (Australia).

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