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The Ntamack counter-attack heard around the world

The Ntamack counter-attack heard around the world

Romain Ntamack

It was the moment of the Autumn Nations Series – Romain Ntamack running the ball out of his own in-goal before finding Melvyn Jaminet with a no-look pass that almost singlehandedly swung the momentum of the clash with the All Blacks at the Stade de France.

To put it into context, France had roared out of the blocks against New Zealand with two tries from Peato Mauvaka and another from Ntamack to lead 24-6 at the break, the biggest half-time deficit the All Blacks have ever faced.

But as is always the case with New Zealand, they can strike back in a flash and they did just that. Three tries in the space of 12 minutes meant that it was 27-25 as the clock hit 60 minutes.

Ironically, before the game, Fabien Galthié had said to his team: “At the hour-mark, we have to be in the game because after that, it’s a different match.”

They were very much in the game, except, the momentum was all with the visitors. France needed a way to stem the tide.

Ntamack showed them the way.

New Zealand had the ball on halfway and spread it wide to the right where Jordie Barrett kicked through.

With Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and Brad Weber all chasing hard, Ntamack got across from the other side of the pitch to be first to the ball and collect it just before going back over his own try-line.

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From there, Ntamack left everyone in the stadium gasping as he first handed off Mo’unga before arcing around Barrett and racing out of the in-goal area and up to the 22.

There, he produced a perfect no-look pop pass to full-back Melvyn Jaminet on his left shoulder and France were able to break all the way into the All Blacks’ 22, with the move eventually breaking down as Ardie Savea killed the ball, being sent to the sin-bin for his troubles and allowing Jaminet to stretch the lead back to five points.

Ntamack explained his thought process in an interview with L’Equipe.

He said: “My first priority was to get back as quickly as possible to be first to the ball after the kick from Barrett. At the moment that I got the ball, I wasn’t sure if I took it into the in-goal area or not.

“So I said to myself: “I will try to get out of this situation, I know I’ll have support. And if I get tackled, it will either be a goal-line dropout or a five-metre scrum. In my head it was clear, I had to try it. I got away and focused on running straight. Then I felt Melvyn’s shout. Honestly, I couldn’t even say if he called for the ball, there was so much noise I couldn’t hear anything.”

What is notable about Ntamack’s explanation is the lucidity in the moment. As easy as it would be to fall into cliche about French flair and harking back to Serge Blanco running the ball out of his own in-goal area to spark a move that ended with Philippe Saint-André going under the posts against England at Twickenham in 1991, this was very different.

— France Rugby (@FranceRugby) July 3, 2020

Ntamack’s decision to run was not only magical, it was the sensible call. Handing New Zealand either a five-metre scrum or a goal-line dropout (he carried it over the line so it would have been the former), would have likely led to France losing the lead. Even when he had escaped the first two tackles, it made sense to keep going rather than kicking away possession.

Romain Ntamack

But the other aspect to it was Ntamack’s total confidence that his teammates would expect him to do what he did and be there in support.

He added: “I had my back to the play when I got the ball. I had no idea how many New Zealanders were there. I chose one way but could have gone the other and it wouldn’t have happened.

“It was instinct, it’s down to intuition that you can do things like this. When I broke, I knew the whole team had that ability to react.

“In our high-intensity training sessions, the ball is always alive. When there is a try, sometimes we will go straight from the in-goal area. It’s the same for when we are under pressure and we have to get out of difficult areas, we’ve worked on it a lot in training. It pays off.”

SUPPORT LINES

Two men stand out in that regard. Jaminet of course. The full-back got back and almost gave Ntamack a nudge as he started his run before appearing on his shoulder just on the approach of the 22.

Even more remarkable is the work of Antoine Dupont. The now skipper started the play around halfway and was second only to Ntamack in getting back after the kick through. Having run that 50-metre sprint, he then charged back upfield and was on Jaminet’s inside shoulder to get the ball on the New Zealand ten-metre line, another 60-metre sprint.

Nicknamed the Minister of the Interior for his support lines that have seen him score 18 tries since the start of the 2020/21 season, Dupont’s engine is among the very best in the game and this was the latest example of just how relentless he is in keeping up with play.

Dupont was not able to run in the try this time, George Bridge able to slow him before Sam Whitelock brought him down.

But at that ruck, Jaminet, Gabin Villière and Thibaud Flament all got there to ensure the ball was kept alive and when it was recycled. Replacement front rowers Gaëtan Barlot and Jean-Baptiste Gros combined to get the ball away from the ruck where Ntamack fed Cameron Woki.

There is a case that he could have passed out to Damian Penaud who might have gone in for the try, although with the drifting New Zealand defence, that is far from guaranteed. Instead the flanker turned lock carried at the heart of the defence, got up to the line with Savea slowing the ball and conceding the penalty and yellow card.

Ntamack was in no doubt that the play changed the game.

He said: “It was a crucial moment. We were in a down period and that passage really hurt New Zealand. They thought they were going to get a five-metre scrum. In the end they got a yellow card (Ardie Savea) and conceded three points. It’s thanks to that breath of fresh air that we were able to turn things around to win.”

With Savea off, Penaud popped up for an intercept try that pushed the lead back to two scores and France never looked back, eventually running out 40-25 victors.

Ntamack’s counter-attack might not quite be held in the same esteem as the ‘Try from the end of the world’ to seal a series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand back in 1994.

But it is probably the greatest moment of the last decade of French rugby and is indicative of both the skill and the lucidity of this French team.

 

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