Luke McAlister kicked five penalties as New Zealand held on for a 20-6 victory over Italy in Milan.
In what was hardly a vintage All Blacks performance the visitors were forced to work very hard for victory over a gutsy Italian side that were outstanding on defence and at scrum time.
The pride with which the Italian players and fans alike sang their anthem, Il Canto degli Italiani, would have given the Kiwis an early indication that the Azzurri were up for a fight.
Predictably, the All Blacks looked the more threatening of the two teams with ball in hand, but at scrum time it was a different story as a formidable Italian pack piled pressure on the inexperienced All Blacks front row.
Martin Castrogiovanni, who destroyed the midweek Springboks’ front row for his club Leicester last week, once again showcased his incredible scrummaging prowess by forcing Wyatt Crockett to drop his bind in the first scrum of the game and Craig Gower nailed the resulting penalty to give the hosts the lead after just five minutes.
The Italians were playing with a great deal of passion and commitment, but their enthusiasm was getting the better of them and persistent infringements at the breakdown gave McAlister plenty of opportunities to kick his team into the lead, which he gladly accepted.
New Zealand showed a real willingness to spread it wide whenever the opportunity presented itself despite, the lack of width offered by the San Siro pitch.
The Italians’ defence was exemplary in the opening stages of the game but it was only a matter of time before the All Blacks were able to break them down, and in the end it was hooker Corey Flynn who went over in the corner after some patient build up play. McAlister missed the conversion but slotted yet another penalty to give his team a 14-3 half-time lead.
With just a couple of minutes gone in the second stanza, Nick Mallett’s men were dealt a blow when Gonzalo Garcia was sent to the bin for a dangerous challenge. However, while the resultant penalty was successful, the All Blacks failed to take advantage of their extra man as Italy stood firm even with a numerical disadvantage.
But while the Italians were doing a good a job at keeping the score line respectable, they offered little on attack and the result was never in doubt for the Kiwis.
In the final quarter of the game the All Blacks turned to the bench, bringing on the likes of John Afoa, Jimmy Cowan and Stephen Donald as they looked to finally open up the stubborn defence, but the changes failed to have the desired affect.
McAlister nailed his fifth penalty of the game with less than 10 minutes to play and from the restart the Italians put together their longest period of sustained pressure on the All Blacks defence.
But the Azzurri’s deficiencies on attack ultimately meant they were unable to find an opening and the All Blacks hung on for victory.
By Andrew Worling