Pressure can do strange things to teams. Even the best in the world can suddenly struggle to execute the most basic skills under the burden of expectation.
On a night when a raucous, febrile Stade de France crowd more than did their part, their heroes on the field often failed to do theirs – certainly in the swashbuckling, free-flowing manner we have become accustomed to over the past few years.
Yet somehow, someway, and even with the talismanic Antoine Dupont kept quiet, France emerged comfortably victorious against New Zealand. Barring some catastrophe or act of God in their remaining group games against the overmatched trio of Italy, Namibia and Uruguay, they can now safely start turning their focus to a quarter-final.
This 27-13 win won’t live in the memory for the quality of performance – in fact, at times, especially in the first half, Les Bleus bore no resemblance to the dynamic, efficient, ruthless machine that Fabien Galthie has created during this four-year cycle – but perhaps their grinding victory was simply a sign of the true champions they are.
Maybe the most eagerly-anticipated Rugby World Cup opener since South Africa vs Australia in 1995 was never destined to be a carnival of high-class rugby but the fact it ended with the All Blacks’ first-ever pool-stage defeat, after 31 straight wins dating back to 1987, speaks to what Les Bleus are now capable of.
There were concerns – not least hooker Julien Marchand going off injured early on and France will await news of his condition with bated breath. Things may have got dicey when Mark Telea crossed the whitewash right at the start of each half but the boot of Thomas Ramos kept them in touch and one moment of Matthieu Jalibert-Damian Penaud magic proved enough before Melvyn Jaminet’s late opportunism put the cherry on top and made the final margin of victory a frankly baffling 14 points.
Ask any French fan in attendance, as they bounced up and down to Freed from Desire and ‘na na na na’-ed with gusto at the full-time whistle if they minded the fact that their team barely got out of third gear. You already know the answer.
For New Zealand’s part, the concerns that have lingered since they reached their nadir last summer showed up again. The attack lacked cohesion outside of pre-designed, first-phase strike plays and they were completely dominated in the kicking game. The sense that they’re the most flawed of the four genuine title contenders and are only top of the betting market due to name value was reinforced here.
There is nothing quite like a game underneath the Friday night lights at the Stade de France and when that game happens to be the opener of a home World Cup that the hosts are expecting to win, against the mighty All Blacks no less, you get an atmosphere as thunderous and awe-inspiring as this.
To the untrained eye, the opening ceremony – which is, of course, mandatory at this sort of event, whether you want one or not – was the typically corny, slightly confusing, deeply parochial fare but the French crowd responded as if it were Queen playing Live Aid in 1985.
French president Emmanuel Macron was then booed out of the building when he came on the pitch to give a speech, before every Les Bleus supporter roared La Marseillaise to drown out the patchy rendition by the on-field choir.
That was all before a ball was even thrown or kicked in anger. Once the match got underway, every decision by referee Jaco Peyper that went against France was deafeningly jeered and whistled, while a spine-tingling moment just before half-time saw the entire crowd – from the cheap seats to the boxes – on their feet and jumping up and down in unison while singing.
This all came despite the fact that, on the pitch, France looked outright nervous, perhaps understandably given the magnitude of the occasion.
It took just 93 seconds for the All Blacks to breach the home defence and (momentarily) silence the crowd. A simple first-phase strike play from a lineout saw Rieko Ioane carve through a gaping hole in the defence and after a quickly-taken penalty, Beauden Barrett lofted a cross-kick for Telea to dot down in the corner ahead of Penaud.
The missed conversion soon had the fans back in full voice and Ramos’s penalty shortly after gave them further encouragement but the sloppy mistakes continued.
Ramos dropped a flat kick on his own 22 to gift New Zealand possession, while touch was carelessly missed from a penalty. Gabin Villiere twice decided to run the ball back himself from deep rather than passing to an open man to kick clear, turning the ball over despite beating the first defender, and the All Blacks found consistent holes in the normally impenetrable Shaun Edwards defence.
It was faintly remarkable that France led 9-8 at the break despite all this, although that advantage lasted barely two minutes into the second stanza as Telea again struck early. A magical chip over the top from Ardie Savea – promoted to captain just before the game when regular skipper Sam Cane was a late withdrawal through injury – sat up for Ioane to spin a long bounce pass out to the winger for his second try.
The home supporters again voiced their displeasure at Peyper as replays shown in the stadium suggested the Ioane pass may have been slightly forward but they were soon roaring for a different reason as Les Bleus showed their gutsy defiance.
Just moments after Penaud was spectacularly tackled into touch right on the try-line by Richie Mo’unga, approval was shown for the decision to kick to the corner and immediately vindicated as Jalibert’s jinking run ended with a Penaud overlap to touch down out wide.
And from there, a French side playing at maybe 80 per cent of their true ability never squandered the lead. Ramos took his personal tally to 17 points in a string-pulling display and Jaminet grabbed Maxime Lucu’s kick as the New Zealand defence dithered, for a second try at the death.
This wasn’t exactly the marker Les Bleus wanted to lay down in their World Cup opener but in its own way, it delivered a pretty frightening message to those who will try to stop them for the rest of the tournament.