McCaw inspires All Blacks in a match too far

New Zealand 40 France 13
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The Independent Online

Around 60,000 people pitched up at the Telstra Stadium for another episode in the long-running waste of effort known as the play-off for third place, and it was a moot point whether so many people had gathered anywhere for an event held under false pretences since Florida last held an election. If the All Blacks were not terribly interested in yesterday's apology for a match, the French were not interested at all. The sooner the World Cup organisers give this fixture the heave-ho, the better.

The intensity of last weekend's semi-finals was something to remember for ever and a day; by comparison, this game was played in an emotional vacuum. New Zealand scored six tries, a couple of them shrouded in a thick cloud of controversy, and had the thing wrapped up by the 52nd minute. The one French forward who put his heart and soul into the affair, Sylvain Marconnet, was substituted before the hour because his righteous anger was out of kilter with the general atmosphere of indifference.

At least one or two of the less familiar Tricolore backs showed some flashes of inspiration. Pepito Elhorga, the 12 stone whippet from Agen, gave the rather more formidably constructed Joe Rokocoko plenty to think about on the wing and was rewarded with a beautiful try early in the second half when he cut back inside. Brian Liebenberg, a great tank of a centre from South Africa who qualified for France by serving a three-year stint in Paris, was effective in an entirely different manner, repeatedly thumping into the All Black midfield from deep.

For a few minutes after the interval, when the French were within a point of the All Black lead at 13-14, a proper game threatened to break out. But Rokocoko's fortunate try, completed after Richie McCaw had appeared to fumble the ball forwards, eased the situation for New Zealand, and when Doug Howlett was allowed to get away with an illegal line-out throw shortly afterwards, Brad Thorn trundled over for the decisive score.

From the moment the French named their starting line-up - essentially a second-string side, featuring only one elite forward and a single first-choice back - the match was undermined by a fatal imbalance, for the All Blacks had already decided to play at full strength. McCaw, the New Zealanders' best player in this tournament by a country mile, was outstanding once again, but he was barely tested by the pair of French flankers, Sebastien Chabal and Patrick Tabacco, unschooled in the dark arts of the breakaway role. He had the run of the pitch, and as a result, provided a stream of loose ball for his half-backs.

"If the organisers want the the play-off to be more real, more of a game, then the teams need more than four days of preparation," said Jo Maso, the French manager. When you have just suffered the trauma of a semi-final defeat in a competition you believed you could win, four months is not enough to regroup. Give it up as a bad job. Please.

New Zealand: Tries Jack, Howlett, Rokocoko, Thorn, Muliaina, Holah; Conversions Carter 4, MacDonald. France: Try Elhorga. Conversion Yachvili; Penalty Yachvili; Drop goal Yachvili.

NEW ZEALAND: M Muliaina (Auckland); D Howlett (Auckland), L MacDonald (Canterbury), A Mauger (Canterbury), J Rokocoko (Auckland); C Spencer (Auckland), S Devine (Auckland); D Hewett (Canterbury), K Mealamu (Auckland), G Somerville (Canterbury), C Jack (Canterbury), A Williams (Auckland), R Thorne (Canterbury, capt), R McCaw (Canterbury), J Collins (Wellington). Replacements: M Holah (Waikato) for McCaw, 16-23 and for Collins, 42; D Carter (Canterbury) for MacDonald, 19 and Mauger, 81; B Thorn (Canterbury) for Williams, 46; C Hoeft (Otago) for Hewett, 70; M Hammett (Canterbury) for Mealamu, 74; C Ralph (Canterbury) for Carter, 79.

FRANCE: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); P Elhorga (Agen), A Marsh (Montferrand), D Traille (Pau), D Bory (Montferrand); G Merceron (Montferrand), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Stade Français), Y Bru (Toulouse, capt), J-B Poux (Toulouse), D Auradou (Stade Français), T Privat (Montferrand), S Chabal (Bourgoin), P Tabacco (Stade Français), C Labit (Toulouse) Replacements: N Brusque (Biarritz) for Poitrenaud 30; B Liebenberg (Stade Français) for Marsh, h-t; J-J Crenca (Agen) for J-B Poux, h-t; F Pelous (Toulouse) for Privat, h-t; R Ibanez (Saracens) for Bru, 53; O Magne (Montferrand) for Tabacco, 56; Poux for Marconnet, 59; F Michalak (Toulouse) for Merceron, 66.

Referee: C White (England).