Kiwis stroll to a 48-point victory at the Rugby League World Cup.
New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney was left hailing his team’s improved defence after they held France to 48-0 to put themselves in prime position to qualify for the World Cup quarter-finals as pool winners.
Half-back Shaun Johnson scored a New Zealand record 24 points thanks to a brace of tries and eight conversions in a blemish-free kicking display after a valiant French team had held the reigning world champions to 18-0 at half-time.
The Kiwis’ opening Pool B match against Samoa last weekend also ended in victory, 42-24, but Kearney had been critical of his team’s defence in allowing the South Sea Islanders back into the game in a see-saw second-half.
There was no such repeat from a reshuffled Kiwi side in front of a 17,000 sell-out crowd in Avignon, prop Ben Matulino outstanding in the pack’s punishing defensive effort that stunted any French attempt at attack early on.
“It was an area we highlighted against Samoa that needed improvement,” Kearney said. “I thought the lads did really, really good in that area tonight — the French side threw everything at us.
“I thought it was a pretty solid performance right through the whole match.”
Kearney said his job had been made much harder after some fine personal displays on the pitch, notably by Matulino, double try-scorer Frank-Paul Nu’uausala and hooker Isaac Luke.
“Some guys really made the decision for us very difficult in the next two weeks,” he said, giving no hint whether the team would be again rotated for next Friday’s final pool match against Papua New Guinea.
Captain Simon Mannering said the feeling in the changing room had been much better than that after the Samoa game.
“There’s a lot more satisfaction in the performance, holding a team to nil,” he said.
France coach Richard Agar was not left too despondent, hailing his players’ “commitment and courage”, but lamenting poor decision-making, especially in attack, when the home side looked particularly clueless.
“We need to improve our smartness and decisions in situations when we need to tighten up,” the Englishman said, with France’s final pool game against the big-hitting Samoans in Perpignan next weekend.
“We had the opportunity to mount pressure in the first-half, but it was us who lost those opportunities.
“Our amount of errors and little bits of ill-discipline came back to haunt us. I’m disappointed we didn’t keep the score more competitive.”
Agar said his team, and others in the World Cup, could not afford not to play with improved levels and percentages of ball possession if they wished to compete with the big three of New Zealand, Australia and England.
“New Zealand will go close to winning the competition,” he said. “They’re world-class players.”
France captain Olivier Elima was not concerned by the thought of Samoa seeking to exploit any potential midfield weakness.
“Up until the 38th minute, they hadn’t come through the middle, they’d only scored two tries from kicks,” the veteran prop said.
“We were just left exhausted at the end of the second-half because of all the energy that went into our defence.”