JON CARDINELLI says the All Blacks mixed the sublime with the decidedly ordinary in their 41-10 victory against Tonga at Eden Park.
The build up to this fixture was as Hollywood as you like, with a captivating opening ceremony succeeded by rousing performances of the sipi tau and ka mate. It was at this moment where the contest reached a climax, as the game itself was all too predictable with the No 1 ranked side proving too strong for their Pacific island neighbours.
It was a match where the spectacle was something to be celebrated more than the rugby contest. The All Blacks stayed true to the occasion by producing a performance that was impressive from a skills and finishing point of view, but largely underwhelming in terms of forward play.
Their scrum was inconsistent and they won’t be pleased with their poor discipline at the breakdown. The backs sparked the necessary go-forward in the first half through sheer strength, dazzling footwork and basketball offloads that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition match.
Israel Dagg wrote his name into World Cup history when crossed for the tournament’s first try in the 12th minute. Richard Kahui broke the line and offloaded to a rampaging Sonny Bill Williams, and the ball recycled quickly for Kahui to create the space for Dagg to score.
Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu also featured prominently as the All Blacks continued to slice through the Tongan defence. Williams had the crowd on their feet when he produced one of those magic offloads to set up the hosts’ second try, and also played a telling part in the third. A back-of-the hand offload to Isaia Toeava flummoxed the defenders and ultimately created the score for Kahui, while a diving pass to Dagg proved another unforgettable moment.
Dagg sparked the All Blacks’ fourth when he took the ball from a standing position and then rounded some lazy Tongan defence. Kahui was on hand again to receive the final pass, and slid past the last would-be tackler to complete the finish.
Tonga flyhalf Kurt Morath got the visitors on the board in the 40th minute, and this would prove to be a confidence-boosting score. The Tongans tackled like men possessed in the third quarter as the All Blacks’ pack struggled to deliver as a collective, and that pressure transferred to the backs who were not as slick and clinical as they were in the first half.
A piece of individual brilliance by Kahui provided the breakthrough, as the All Blacks winger chipped, ran and regathered before firing off a fine pass to Jerome Kaino. Kaino was one of the standouts for the All Blacks forwards, but sadly for the hosts, the new look back row never gelled to create the necessary continuity that the New Zealanders so enjoy.
The Tongans refused to let this try shatter their confidence, and turned down a kickable penalty later in the half that may have added some more respectability to the scoreline.
They camped on the All Blacks’ tryline for what seemed an eternity and forced the hosts to concede multiple penalties at scrum-time, and finally reserve prop Alisona Taumalolo found a way through the New Zealand defence. It was a score that evoked such a clamorous response from the Tongan fans that you would have thought they’d won the cup itself.
While the All Blacks will pleased with their backline display in the first half, the performance by the forwards was erratic and may have been punished by stronger opposition. Tonga overcame a poor start to produce a proud showing in the second stanza, and it is from this period of play where they will draw the most confidence ahead of their subsequent World Cup matches.