CARDIFF, 17 Oct - Julian Savea helped himself to a hat-trick at the Millennium Stadium as New Zealand eased into the semi-finals of Rugby World Cup 2015 with a nine-try crushing of France.
Four first-half touchdowns and five more after the interval paved the way for a consummate 62-13 victory that left France to lament a performance littered with errors and inaccuracy.
Having shown only brief glimpses of their capability in the pool stages of the tournament, New Zealand began with a spring in their step and took the lead courtesy of Dan Carter's fifth-minute penalty.
Full-back Scott Spedding levelled matters with a penalty from inside his own half four minutes later, but when the unpredictable Frederic Michalak loitered too long with ball in hand and had his 11th-minute clearance kick charged down by Brodie Retallick, the Kiwi lock gathered and galloped clear to touch down for the opening try.
Michalak limped off as Carter converted and France were forced into an early substitution. It was a genuine double-whammy.
Off the hook
When scrum-half Morgan Parra cut the deficit to four points with a straightforward penalty in the 15th minute, though, French hopes were lifted once more.
It should have been better still but the normally reliable Parra scuffed his next shot at goal and the All Blacks were off the hook.
Coach Steve Hansen had faced questions in midweek over his selection of Nehe Milner-Skudder ahead of the prodigious Waisake Naholo. When the 24-year-old wing stepped inside off his right foot and outstripped the France defence to score one of the individual tries of the tournament, Hansen was well and truly vindicated.
Carter converted and moments later produced a moment of genius to send in Savea. The outside half picked a hole between Pascal Pape and Louis Picamoles before popping up the most sublime scoring pass from the back of his hand.
France did grab a lifeline five minutes before the interval when, after concerted pressure, Picamoles swept up a bouncing ball in the New Zealand 22 and fought off all-comers to score a try that Parra duly converted. Their joy was short-lived.
Having retained possession after a towering Carter up-and-under, New Zealand chose to go left where the irrepressible Savea (pictured, celebrating one of his tries) bumped off three tacklers to score his second of the night. This time Carter was unable to convert.
After six relatively uneventful minutes at the beginning of the second half, a free-for-all involving at least a dozen players ended with Picamoles being shown a yellow card for putting his fist in Richie McCaw's face.
With New Zealand buoyed by their numerical advantage, Jerome Kaino extinguished any flickering French embers with try number five. Savea made it six, with a try on the hour to match his hat-trick against Georgia, and Kieran Read added a seventh with 16 minutes remaining.
By now the French were offering little resistance and replacement scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow brought up New Zealand's half century of points with their eighth try. His second, four minutes later, was equally impressive and with Carter slotting conversions from all angles, the All Blacks were just three points short of eclipsing their biggest margin of victory over France, 51 points in 2007.
Ma'a Nonu blew the chance to set a new mark when he coughed up possession as he reached for the line, but by then the world champions had progressed comfortably into the last four. It was a job very well done.