Barrett inspires All Blacks to nervy win over France
RUGBY UNION: If there were any doubt about Beauden Barrett's World Rugby player of the year credentials, he surely proved them once again in the blood and thunder test against France at the Stade de France.
The French, who rediscovered their offloading game of old, were well up for this one, the last Test of the year for both nations. And the recent physical and mental trials against Ireland in Chicago and Dublin clearly have taken their toll on the All Blacks.
Their edge wasn't so much blunted as dulled. They looked tired, sore and in dire need of a rest. They were asked defensive questions up the middle and out wide, and although the visitors fell off more tackles than they would have liked, their scrambling defence is surely the best in the world. Time and again they were down on numbers with Les Bleus on the charge, but time and again the threat was snuffed out.
Down on possession and territory, and with clean breaks at a minimum, they needed an attacking spark, and Barrett's two attacking interventions reaped the All Blacks 14 points.
It's not overstating the point to say they helped turn the match for the All Blacks.
The first, after only eight minutes, came just metres from his own 22m line and involved a flat cross-kick to Julian Savea, the wing playing his part perfectly and offloading inside to flying fullback Israel Dagg.
It was Dagg's 10th try of the year for the All Blacks and capped a remarkable comeback for the Crusaders player, who appeared to relish playing at the back in place of the injured Ben Smith.
In the second half, Barrett's interception of No.10 Camille Lopez's pass when the French looked odds-on to score was freakish and yet not all that surprising given the Hurricanes' player's uncanny knack for being the right place at the right time. His conversion from between the posts gave the All Blacks a 17-6 lead, a seemingly safe one.
It only hinted at the drama to come, though. Charlie Faumuina's try appeared to make the game safe, but back the French came again through Baptiste Serin.
And rather than make the game safe with a penalty goal in the final minutes with the score 24-16, the All Blacks opted to take a scrum, failed to capitalise, and another French penalty made for a very tense final few moments.
In the end the All Blacks triumphed 24-19.