New Zealand beat France 37-17 in captain Richie McCaw’s record 100th Test to clinch first place in their Rugby World Cup pool. England moved on top of its group by routing Romania 67-3.
Israel Dagg touched down twice at Auckland’s Eden Park as the All Blacks weathered early French pressure last night before outscoring their opponents by five tries to two in a matchup of the teams ranked first and fifth by the International Rugby Board.
New Zealand’s 24th straight victory at Eden Park took the tournament host and bookmakers’ favorite five points clear of France atop Pool A. The All Blacks can’t be overtaken and will face the Pool B runner-up in the quarterfinals on Oct. 9 at Eden Park, where they last lost in 1994. The venue will also host the semifinals and Oct. 23 final.
“We have a fair way to go yet,” McCaw, who was presented with a special cap after becoming the first New Zealander to play 100 elite Test matches, said in a televised interview. “I’m looking forward to the next four or five weeks. Hopefully we can do something special.”
The All Blacks also finished top of their pool in the six previous editions of rugby’s four-yearly championship, going on to win their only title at the inaugural tournament in 1987.
Argentina and Scotland meet today in a Pool B match, while Ireland can regain the Group C lead from Australia by beating tournament debutant Russia. Samoa plays Fiji in Pool C.
Tries from Adam Thomson and Cory Jane put New Zealand ahead last night before Dagg struck either side of half time. France, which upset New Zealand at the World Cup in the 1999 semifinals and quarterfinals four years ago, hit back with tries from Maxime Mermoz and Francois Trinh-Duc before Sonny Bill Williams went over in the corner to complete the scoring.
“It was good to have a game of this intensity at this stage of the competition,” All Blacks coach Graham Henry said in a news conference. “We were pleased with it. The guys scored some great tries.”
France, which was the last visiting team to beat the All Blacks at Eden Park 17 years ago, had nearly two thirds of the possession in the first 10 minutes though failed to score.
“We started the game well but made too many big mistakes,” France assistant coach Emile Ntamack said in a televised interview. “The tournament for us is not over. We have another important game next week against Tonga.”
No. 8 Thomson went over in the corner for the All Blacks first try after Ma’a Nonu’s run stretched the French defense. Jane and Dagg then burst over for tries that fly-half Dan Carter converted to put the All Blacks 19-0 up. Dimitri Yachvili’s penalty made it 19-3 at the break.
Dagg finished off the All Blacks’ first attack of the second half to score his second try. Carter added the conversion and then kicked a penalty before his pass to Sam Whitelock was intercepted by Mermoz, who raced clear for a try that Yachvili converted.
Carter booted a drop goal to make it 32-10 before French replacement Trinh-Duc scored a converted try with five minutes left. Williams went over in the corner after the restart to take the All Blacks’ winning margin out to 20 points.
“It’s about being clinical when you get the opportunities,” McCaw added. “The boys held their cool and when we had a chance we took it. I was very happy with the way things went.”
Wingers Mark Cueto and Chris Ashton each scored three tries in yesterday’s other match to help England move five points clear of Scotland atop Pool B.
Cueto got a hat trick in 12 first-half minutes on his comeback from a back injury as England scored 10 tries in Dunedin to secure the bonus-point victory. Ben Youngs, Ben Foden, Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft also touched down to give England its biggest try haul in a World Cup game since scoring 17 against Uruguay in 2003.
Point to Prove
England’s performance came a week after team manager Martin Johnson had criticized his players for being “sloppy” in their 41-10 victory over Georgia.
“We looked at our performance last week and we had a lot to improve on,” England captain Lewis Moody said in a televised interview. “We’ve still got areas to work on but the performance across the board was much better. We had a point to prove to ourselves and we’ve gone some way to doing that.”
If Scotland beats Argentina today, the Scots and England will be guaranteed spots in the quarterfinals. Their Oct. 1 meeting in Auckland would then decide who finishes atop the five-team group and faces the Pool A runner-up in the last eight.
“It was job done,” Johnson said. “We go into a massive week for us.”