All Blacks overcome stubborn Italy side in Rome
Muddled for 70 minutes, the All Blacks eventually ran in five tries, but were flattered by a 42-10 win against Italy that saw them fall short of the high standards they had talked of during the week.
Tries to Kieran Read, Ma'a Nonu, Cory Jane and two in five minutes to prolific wing Julian Savea blew out the margin of a match riddled with handling errors, poor kicking, missed tackles and a lack of continuity.
Stadio Olimpico is usually the venue for Serie A football, but today it was not witness to a beautiful game for most of this test.
Coach Steve Hansen had made 14 changes to his side most notably the resting of captain Richie McCaw and first five-eighth Dan Carter.
It was the latter the All Blacks missed most as Aaron Cruden struggled through a messy performance in the driver's seat.
His running game looked sharp early, but there were a number of handling errors and miscued kicks on a night where Italy hustled and bustled the All Blacks off their rhythm.
That was particularly true at the breakdown where halfback Aaron Smith was often left to fend for himself - leading to sloppy phase ball.
It echoed the last two meetings between the sides, ugly affairs in Milan and Christchurch.
Credit must go to an Italian side which played with inventive intent and physical edge and who brought the 80,000-strong crowd to their feet when second five eighth Alberto Sgarbi scored after 26 minutes to make it 13-7.
But it was not a test they were ever going to win and eventually the pace of the contest and the skill of the All Blacks outsides told.
Savea's double in the final seven minutes took his test tally to 10 tries from seven tests and notably he was the man who popped the final passes to both Nonu and Jane after inserting his massive body through the Azzurri's backs.
It will likely be enough to seal his spot on the left wing against Wales in a week's time.
There is much to improve on before the Cardiff test, particularly the shape of an attack that was at its best from set piece, but seemingly lost after that.
Keven Mealamu is an injury concern after limping off just after halftime to give Dane Coles an extended run, but nobody else really made a statement to change Hansen's top side.
The first half was not one the All Blacks will look back on with any fondness.
Hansen could have picked any number of topics for his halftime speech.
The All Blacks kicked too much early and it allowed Italy a chance to get into the game and then proceeded to miss an unacceptable number of tackles.
The All Blacks had some early success with their forward runners, and Italy's defence was probably off side at times, but the two-pass tactic among the tight forwards became all too predictable.
Italy rushed up on the second receiver and shut the attack down behind the gain line.
Cruden constructed the first try when he ghosted 40 metres into enemy territory from a scrum.
Centre Conrad Smith scooped up the loose pass and scooted clear to put Read in under the bar for a 10-0 lead after 17 minutes.
But the All Blacks were not in clinical mood. Gear dropped the ball going for the line, Cruden went the wrong way when he burst clear, and Brodie Retallick shelled a simple pass.
Nonu gave some breathing space when he ran off a short pass from Savea to score near the posts ten mintues after the break.
The scoreline of 23-7 looked comfortable enough, but it didn't tell the true story. Luciano Orquera knocked over a drop goal and Italy kept coming till about 15 minutes to play.
Savea surged in to the line to put replacement fullback Cory Jane over following at trademark fend, then grabbed two himself in the final minutes.
Jane was his usual classy self after replacing Beauden Barrett, while Read ran hard all day in his first match as captain, but there weren't too many star performances in the All Blacks ranks.
Big lock Ali Williams made a decent enough fist of his first start in 13 months. He stole a lineout early, made most of his tackles and got around the park before being subbed for Sam Whitelock on 50 minutes.
All Blacks 42 (Kieran Read, Ma'a Nonu, Cory Jane, Julian Savea (2), Aaron Cruden 3 pen, 4 con) Italy 10 (Alberto Sgarbi try, Luciano Orguera con, drop goal). HT: 13-7.
Taranaki Daily News