From Paul Eddison at Stade de France, Paris
Within 15 minutes of the gates opening at the Stade de France, 20,000 people had already poured in to get a first taste of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
By the time the rugby kicked off more than three hours later, New Zealand needed just two minutes to dampen French spirits.
Mark Telea’s try, after Rieko Ioane ripped through the heart of the French defence, was the fastest-ever in a World Cup opener and silenced the packed-out crowd.
And yet by the end of the night, the Stade de France was bouncing to the beat of Freed from Desire after watching their team come through 27-13 against the biggest challengers in their group.
When France last hosted this tournament, 16 years ago, they looked nervous and were stunned by Argentina in their opening game. There were certainly nerves on show here, but if the old cliché about champions winning when not at their best holds true, then France have every reason to be pleased with their night’s work.
A subdued opening ceremony was brought to life by a rendition of La Peña Baiona, the anthem of Bayonne and a reminder that even in multicultural France, rugby remains first and foremost, a product of the south west.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 8, 2023
The Marseillaise that followed was not quite as successful. The decision to get a children’s choir to join was admirable but the timing was off.
The same was true of France’s defence in the opening minutes. Cut open by Ioane off a lineout and never able to recover as Beauden Barrett’s perfect cross-kick bounced into Telea’s hands.
What followed was an intriguing game that ebbed and flowed. New Zealand looked the more threatening, France the more efficient.
The All Blacks could have scored two or three tries in the first half. The French defence bent but rarely broke, allowing them to keep their visitors at bay, while using their scrum, breakdown work and the boot of Thomas Ramos to take a 9-8 lead into the break.
The second half followed a similar pattern, Telea quickly over for his second following a brilliant break out off a lineout. The French crowd bayed at the final pass from Ioane which was certainly right on the limit of being forward.
France had rarely threatened but did so twice in quick succession. First Thibaud Flament burst through and was brought down just short of the line. Then Damian Penaud looked to be away, only for Dalton Papali’i to make a crucial intervention covering across.
— Paul Eddison (@pauleddison) September 8, 2023
France’s pressure eventually told. Matthieu Jalibert, handed the No.10 jersey after Romain Ntamack was ruled out of the tournament last month, went on a mazy run before feeding Penaud. This time, there was no stopping him.
Ramos converted from the touchline and was then taken out in the air by Will Jordan, the winger the first man to face the dreaded disciplinary bunker as a result. His yellow card was not upgraded, but in his absence, France stretched their lead to 19-13.
When Jordan got it wrong again in the air upon his return, he avoided a second yellow, but conceded three points that allowed Ramos to make it a two-score game with seven minutes remaining.
Jalibert and Penaud almost combined again to put Ramos in, a tiny knock-on from the winger denying the crowd their crowning moment.
They did not have to wait long though. France had already signalled that they thought they were home and dry by withdrawing skipper Antoine Dupont. His replacement, Maxime Lucu, spotted space in the All Black backfield and put in a delightful chip kick, claimed spectacularly by Melvyn Jaminet.
His acrobatic leap and score may be the moment that truly launched this World Cup, which has all the ingredients to be the best ever. There is a home nation riding the crest of a wave with the game thriving at every level and the supporters getting behind the team in their droves.
In Dupont, they have a superstar who has already reached a level of fame that stretches beyond his sport in France – and could do the same on a global scale.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 8, 2023
This tournament also provides a level of unpredictability that we have never previously seen. The All Blacks had never entered a Rugby World Cup match in the professional era as underdogs but they did at the Stade de France.
Even after this defeat – their first-ever in the pool stages of the tournament – they are still contenders, not least because they came into this game deprived of their captain Sam Cane, a last-minute withdrawal.
Beyond Friday night’s duo, Ireland and South Africa currently sit atop the world rankings and each have good reason to believe they can lift the Webb Ellis Cup back at this stadium on October 28.
The lopsided nature of the draw, which sees the world’s top five sides all grouped together in Pools A and B, provides a level of jeopardy in the group stages that is not always present.
There is also the hope that the sweltering Parisian heat will dissipate as the tournament goes on. One of the reasons that rugby is a winter sport is that these temperatures do not lend themselves to the flawless, running rugby for which both France and New Zealand are known.
Come October, when the temperatures have dropped, the party should still be going, and the rugby may get even better.