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As the band played on at Stade de France and the players waited in their changing rooms, All Black coach John Mitchell retrieved the last of the tackle bags from the arena.

It proved to be a sign of things to come as the All Blacks, with men in the sinbin for 30 minutes of the first half, defended against an avalanche of French possession to escape with a 20-20 draw.

They had hit the bags hard in training, they knew they had to mark up better than the previous weekend, and they did. But they had to watch a surreal finish as French kicker Francois Gelez missed two shots in the last few minutes amid the cacophony of 80,000 fans yelling for a home-town victory. He blew the first when the ball fell off the tee and instead of asking to replace it, Gelez panicked, tapped the ball and then knocked it on, twice disqualifying his scoring attempt.

"He should have replaced it, but he had only 10 seconds left in the minute allowed for a kick," referee Scott Young explained.

More bizarre than that episode was the performance of Young and his linesmen Tappe Henning and David McHugh. The work of the match officials in the run of autumn internationals in the Northern Hemisphere is being assessed for appointments towards next year's World Cup. On yesterday's evidence, Young, Henning and McHugh should be rated at the bottom of the list, if at all.

The UN weapons inspectors had been in Paris earlier in the day for briefings on their way to Iraq and had they been invited to Stade de France they would have banned the three test officials.The trio became the centrepiece of a scrappy match, one full of passion and vigour, with the valiant All Black forwards hoeing in against a tough French pack and a backline which offered a largely lateral attack to help the undermanned New Zealanders.

Young has refereed the All Blacks three times in the past year and they have been unimpressed each time. On Saturday, he sinbinned prop Kees Meeuws and second five-eighths Mark Robinson for retaliation, and fullback Christian Cullen was shown the card for a professional foul when he intercepted a French pass from an offside position.It deserved a penalty try because there was no other defender to stop the potential French receiver 5m from the line."There was doubt in my mind," Young said later, in defending his decision.

Henning could not be kept out of the action late in each half. He called French fullback Nicolas Brusque back for kicking out on the full when he looked to have been inside his 22, and then marched on to the field with advice that Robinson should get his team's third yellow card on the stroke of halftime.

But Henning saved his worst until last.

As France bore down on the All Black line in the last minute, Robinson tackled Serge Betsen and the ball went forward before the flanker regathered. Henning's flag shot out and signalled the mistake before Young discovered a French penalty in the ensuing ruck.Henning suddenly forgot the earlier infringement and received a serious burst from Cullen.

It was shameful cowardice from Henning and though Gelez missed the sideline penalty, it did not stop Mitchell making his feelings known to the officials as they left the field.

McHugh was not so prominent, but he did flag some illegal bootwork from Olivier Magne, which on the earlier ratings should have been a yellow card but only cost a penalty. It had been a long day waiting for a match which started at 8.50pm local time, a long time waiting to watch an erratic encounter marred by some poor refereeing.

For broadcasting reasons, the French start their tests late at night, which meant a heavy dew on the ground and the players not leaving the stadium until about 1am while the numbed spectators sidled away on the metro to bars and cafes round Paris.

There were two consolations for the young All Black team. They did not lose and captain Taine Randell, in his 50th test and with new bride Jo in the crowd, was able to hold aloft the Dave Gallaher Cup, which his side retained.

He spoke some kind words in acceptance and was equally diplomatic after the game when asked about the referee's rulings.

"If I was an American, talking about the ref, I would plead the Fifth Amendment," he said.

Mitchell also veered away from commenting, saying it would be better to watch the video and allow the emotion of the test to evaporate before making some remarks. But, he noted, there were official channels to complain, if that were necessary.

It was a tenacious draw from the All Blacks at a stadium which is a splendid piece of space-age architecture. It is a superb structure, purpose-built for soccer and rugby, although the locals maintain it does not deliver the same atmosphere as the old Parc des Princes or the stadiums at Toulouse or Marseille.Nor, since the All Blacks first played there two years ago, have the officials installed a match clock with running time, or allowed replays on the giant screens.Small beer maybe, but when there are only clocks with the actual time, in a test like yesterday when there were a number of stoppages, it does become frustrating. And there was also a weird silence as the crowd waited for a decision from the television match official on what was a French try. No replays for the crowd to discuss, just a message about a decision pending.

Report - Wynne Gray, The New Zealand Herald.

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20 June 2018
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