AUCKLAND (Reuters) - A questionable yellow card to France lock Paul Gabrillagues allowed New Zealand to score three quick tries and set up a thumping 52-11 victory in the first test of their three-match series at Eden Park on Saturday.
With the match locked at 11-11 early in the second half, Gabrillagues was sinbinned by English referee Luke Pearce for a high tackle on Ryan Crotty, but television replays showed the 25-year-old was nowhere near the inside centre’s neck or head.
Codie Taylor and Ben Smith scored tries while Gabrillagues was off the field, and Rieko Ioane added a third just seconds after the lock returned to ease the All Blacks 19 points clear with 20 minutes remaining.
Damian McKenzie, Ngani Laumape, Ioane and Ardie Savea all then scored tries as the All Blacks opened the visitors up in the final quarter to clinch a 12th successive win over France and continue their 24-year unbeaten run at Eden Park.
“We were behind on the scoreboard and as soon as we drew even, the boys really picked up again and it felt good,” All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock said in a post-match interview.
“We just had to hold onto the ball, couple of times in that first half we played, dropped the ball and gave them the opportunities.
“I thought the second half we were a lot better, we capitalised on those opportunities.”
Despite the yellow card blowing the game open, the world champions had started to look ominous by dominating possession and territory and it looked like it would only be a matter of time before the French finally crumbled.
The fact France held an 11-8 halftime lead was testament to their defensive strength, epitomised by their stinging goal-line tackling when the All Blacks hammered away in the final few minutes before the break to no success.
Up until that point, the visitors had lived on All Blacks mistakes with Remy Grosso’s early try set up after a poor attacking kick had allowed Teddy Thomas to counter and set up field position.
The All Blacks, however, had turned the ball over only for Ben Smith to pass the ball straight to Grosso.
Both of Morgan Parra’s first half penalties were also needless with Aaron Smith’s decision to backchat Pearce costing his side 10 metres and putting the France scrumhalf within kicking range the worst of the transgressions.
Despite the All Blacks errors, they did look dangerous when they had the ball in hand with Beauden Barrett’s try the result of some superb interplay with his two brothers.
The All Blacks flyhalf evened the score with his second penalty in the 48th minute but when Gabrillagues was carded three minutes later, the home side cut loose as they scored seven tries in the second half.
“It was difficult, the All Blacks accelerated after the yellow card and for us it was difficult in defence,” France captain Mathieu Bastareaud said.
“We didn’t talk to each other in defence and after the yellow card it was difficult.”
The second test is in Wellington next week with the third in Dunedin on June 23.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by John O'Brien