There was a time when the thought of an All Black team without Richie McCaw caused consternation of epic proportions. It's fair to say that the dynamic presence of Sam Cane has now moved us on from those dark days.
Late on Thursday McCaw was pulled out of the All Blacks lineup for this add-on Bledisloe Cup clash against the Wallabies after feeling his calf tighten at training. Up stepped Cane with nary a hitch in his stride to play a blinder in yet another convincing victory over the Wallabies.
The four tries to three win - not quite the majestic romp we'd been hoping for - completes a 3-0 season sweep over the trans-Tasman rivals, and takes the All Blacks' record to a perfect 10-0 this season.
It also brings up a 30th straight victory on home soil - stretching back to 2009 - which equals the New Zealanders' own record, set between 2003-08, though they will have to wait till next June to have the chance to carve new territory.
The All Blacks have become so dominant in world rugby that you almost welcome little hiccups like Friday's double injury blow to test their mettle. McCaw and Cory Jane were the late withdrawals and, predictably, their replacements, Cane and Charles Piutau, played very well in their stead.
Steve Hansen could not hide his pleasure with his young No 7 afterwards. "Once again he's proven to us all he's worthy of challenging for that No 7 jersey," said the All Blacks coach. "We've known for a long time he's a quality rugby player and he's getting better and better with the time he's getting. He came out tonight and played very, very well."
That's the way the All Blacks roll these days. Their depth is so good they take these setbacks in their stride.
Sure, the New Zealanders rather tailed off in the second after, after leading 30-19 at the break, but it was all about nailing the victory over those Wallabies playing with the nothing-to-lose spirit.
Cane was outstanding, as were fellow loosies Kieran Read and Liam Messam. Sam Whitelock was class in the air, Brodie Retallick made a big impact off the bench and Piutau, Izzy Dagg, Julian Savea and Ma'a Nonu all produced quality moments in a free-flowing encounter.
Cane admitted afterwards the regularity of his appearances (he's started six tests this year) had produced a new brand of confidence. "I only found out on Thursday, but I've been swapping in and out all week," he said. "I've had plenty of time in the saddle and I'm starting to feel more comfortable with every game."
The Wallabies had their bright spots too. Tevita Kuridrani and Matt Toomua were excellent in midfield, Israel Folau had another fine match at fullback and up front they wrestled their way back into the contest after halftimeA special first half ended with the All Blacks scoring three tries to one for a 30-19 lead that could have been more significant had the Wallabies not managed a 40th-minute seven-pointer for wing Adam Ashley-Cooper.
The New Zealanders once again unleashed their fast-paced game of width, and the Wallabies had few answers as Savea, Cane and, finally, Aaron Cruden crossed for tries that kept the scoreboard ticking over nicely.
There were some brilliant moments, too. Savea's score on the 10-minute mark was created by Israel Dagg's lightning switch of play, with the fullback's angled run catching the Wallaby defence flat-footed and putting his wing in for his 16th try in just 18 tests.
With the Wallabies hanging in there via the boot of Quade Cooper (still getting booed mercilessly), Cane's 30th-minute try created some daylight, via a 20-9 lead.
The flanker, having a barnstorming first half, had moments earlier created turnover ball, and when Cruden picked out Savea with a pinpoint cross-kick and Dagg was on hand to provide the support, Cane was over for a seven-pointer.
Cruden made it 30-12 three minutes before the break when the All Blacks got the offload game going and Dagg and Messam set up the five-eighth expertly, but the Wallabies stayed in the contest when Toomua's nice dummy and run set up Ashley-Cooper for the big finish.
The Wallabies made the first move of the second half with a 47th-minute try to Toomua, but Read's reply seven minutes later, from turnover ball and a peach of a pass from Retallick, effectively made the game safe at 38-26.
The Wallabies did finish the stronger, with Kuridrani completing a fine match with the final try, but this was the All Blacks' night as that streak lives on. Hansen confirmed he had no fresh injuries, via either the test or the provincial semis, to disrupt today's touring squad announcement
New Zealand 41 (Julian Savea, Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Kieran Read tries; Cruden 4 pens, 3 cons; Beauden Barrett pen) Australia 33 (Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Toomua, Tevita Kuridrani tries; Quade Cooper 3 pens, 3 cons, dg). Ht: 30-19
- © Fairfax NZ News
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