By MARC HINTON in Marseille - Stuff.co.nz
Test rugby has the smile back on its face, and it has the All Blacks to thank for that.
As Graham Henry's New Zealand side ran in five tries to finally unleash its attacking arsenal at the Stade Velodrome yesterday, the stunning 39-12 victory over France not only rounded off the autumn test programme in style, but made an emphatic statement about the quality of the fare being served up in the international arena.
Yes, the laws of the game may be deeply flawed, and the match officials given way too much leeway to stamp their mark on proceedings. And, yes, it's deeply ironic that northern hemisphere unions now appear to be backtracking on the much-maligned ELVs, many of which they gave short shift to without even bothering to trial them.
But the All Blacks showed yesterday, with a little help from the French, that if your intent is positive, your skills are at the sharp end of the spectrum and the opposition plays ball, then test rugby can still be a beautiful thing to watch.
The All Blacks were at times poetry in motion as they mercilessly punished les Bleus for their failings. At a juncture when the test game has come under the microscope for its one dimensional and - frankly - boring style, and pundits in this part of the world have been wringing their hands in angst over the diminishing entertainment value, this was just what the doctor ordered.
It's too early to tell whether it's an elixir, or just a temporary tonic, but there was a hefty element of the altruistic about an All Black performance that put the ultimate exclamation point on their season. They finished with six straight test victories, another unbeaten run through the north and their tryline intact for the second straight sweep through Europe.
The All Blacks touched perfection as their forwards laid on a splendid platform up front -- once their scrum steadied from an early French onslaught -- owned the breakdown with the world's best player Richie McCaw in imperious form, and finally unleashed the backline's full fury. Some of their handling was simply sublime.
By the end even the passionate French had been won over, the capacity crowd at the Stade Velodrome rising as one to applaud the white-shirted All Blacks as they trudged off the field. Was it possible rugby was an even bigger winner than les Blacks?
When even a born optimist like Graham Henry admits "there's been some pretty boring stuff over the last year", you know the game has an issue. "It was just good to see two teams wanting to play some attacking rugby," noted the All Blacks coach in a fairly unsubtle dig at what many of his side's opponents brought to the table in 2009.
"I think everyone needed that performance," added standout All Black wing Cory Jane who scored a fine individual try in the second half. "The rugby was pretty flat all year, with not many tries. Everyone loves to see tries, and I guess it was getting pretty boring and everyone was commenting on it.
"To go out there and put in that kind of display, hopefully that's put the spirits up in the rugby world."
Fullback Mils Muliaina, who with his 82nd test cap passed Justin Marshall as second on the all-time appearance list, reckoned it was a sort of rugby perfect storm.
"Everything was just perfect -- the weather, the field, the occasion and leaving the changing-room you just knew something was going to happen tonight. You could see it on the boys' faces.
"We pride ourselves as New Zealanders in ensuring the rugby is healthy, and there had been a little negativity about the whole thing. Hopefully we erased that for the year."
Added the maestro Dan Carter, whose vivacious touches in the pivot contributed mightily to the spectacle: "There's been a lot of tough rugby this year, some reasonably low scores and not many tries, and we've been part of that. As a player it's very satisfying to back yourself that you can play that style of rugby, and for it to come off, we're very pleased.
"It just shows it's possible to go out and score tries which we've been trying to do for a while now."
Ironically the French may have contributed to the comprehensive nature of the defeat by buying into the open style. It is probably not the best way to play the All Blacks. But maybe this was one of those times when there was a greater cause to consider.
The All Blacks' testing tour:
Played 5, won 5, scored 129 points, conceded 55; 10 tries scored; 1 conceded
Best performance: Marseille, by a country mile. The best came last as the balls stuck, the holes were hit and the opposition played their part with some pretty positive intent. A treat to watch.
Best player: Richie McCaw. Nonpareil. Dan Carter may be the most stylish player on the planet, but the All Black No 7 is the most valuable. Never lowered his standards from go to whoa. A living legend.
Biggest improver: Kieran Read. If there was doubt before this trip, there can be none now. Rodney So'oialo's time is over and this skilful Cantab has assumed the No 8 mantle. Seems to be growing with every test and a fine complement to McCaw.
Best stat: Nil. As in tries conceded, for a second straight four-test swing through the north. It may have taken till the very end for the attack to be unshackled, but these guys defended as though their lives depended on it the whole trip. Gutsy.
Best young prospect: Cory Jane. Never has a bad game, has a great attitude and always gets the best out of whatever situation he finds himself in. A modern day Jeff Wilson.
Braveheart: Big Brad Thorn. Before Italy had played every minute of every test. Worn out by tour's end, but kept going till he was finally subbed late against France. There's talk he may retire. Let's hope not.
Best try: No contest. Mils Muliaina's against France. Started from deep. Great hands, vision and pace put Sitiveni Sivivatu away on the left and his inpass found the fullback for the perfect finish. Exhilarating.
Coachwatch: A triumph on several fronts. The job reshuffle worked a treat. The forwards thrived under Henry's old-school approach, Hansen found his calling with the backs and the professor kept the defensive standards sky high. Maybe now they can relax and enjoy themselves a bit more.