Emphatic All Blacks far from perfect in Wallabies mauling in Sydney
One of the ugliest build-ups imaginable encouraged the All Blacks to go into a wild-eyed fury as they destroyed the Wallabies 54-34 in Sydney on Saturday night.
Never have the All Blacks had to endure so many distractions prior to a Bledisloe Cup test - and the damage inflicted on the Aussies could have been much worse if the Kiwis hadn't gone to sleep in the final 30 minutes - but it seems difficult to knock this lot off their stride.
The most concerning casualty was the head knock suffered by replacement prop Wyatt Crockett. He was injured when he replaced Joe Moody in the second half and seems unlikely to play in the test against the Wallabies in Dunedin next weekend.
"Crockie has obviously got a concussion worry, we will see how he goes in testing," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said. "But it would probably be pretty fair to say we would follow the same protocol as we do when anyone gets a head knock. We won't be making him available, regardless."
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Hansen said it had not yet been decided who will replace Crockett, but Kane Hames was the likely candidate. Centre Ryan Crotty also copped a blow to the ribs after a late tackle, and will be assessed on Sunday.
There were no shortage of controversies in the build-up.
There was the "bug-gate" court case just 5km away from the All Blacks team hotel, halfback Aaron Smith had to deal with more fall-out from his infamous toilet tryst and then back rower Jerome Kaino had to return home after a Sydney newspaper made allegations about his personal life.
No wonder the All Blacks were so happy to ram in their mouthguards and embrace their work so cheerfully at ANZ Stadium.
At halftime they led 40-6, the most points the Aussies had conceded in the first 40 minutes of a test, and were on target to surpass the record margin from the 43-6 win when they beat the same foe in the mud and slush in Wellington in 1996, until they eased off the accelerator.
This match was played in much different conditions to that; a hard track that suited the All Blacks attacking plan of flinging the ball wide to a runner behind the line, enabling them to quickly free the outside backs into space.
Indeed, the Wallabies were just woeful in defence, their jagged line left too many holes and they appeared muddled about exactly who should be marking which man in black, and it seemed almost surreal that they could miss 27 tackles in the first 25 minutes and concede four tries.
As the match ground on, however, it became apparent that the Wallabies were already staggering around like a punch-drunk bumbling boxer; they scored tries to ex-leaguie Curtis Rona, Tevita Kuridrani, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau in the second half but the All Blacks had already landed a series of heavy shots by scoring eight of their own.
"The first 50 minutes was probably as good rugby as you well see, and the last 30 was probably some of the ugliest rugby," Hansen acknowledged.
"I think we got a little seduced by the scoreboard and went away from the fundamentals of what we wanted to do. I think it is about concentrating, right now, on what we did really, really well and that first 50 minutes was pretty special."
This victory doesn't wipe away the disappointment of the 1-1 series draw with the British and Irish Lions, but it certainly helps chip away at the memories of that lost opportunity.
Although it pays to keep the win in context - this Aussie side couldn't hold a candle to the great teams that caused their trans-Tasman rivals so much grief in the late 1990s and early 2000s - the way the All Blacks started was impressive.
Hansen will have been annoyed to see his side leak tries after fullback Damian McKenzie and wing Ben Smith struck with five-pointers immediately after the re-start, but given what they achieved prior to the Aussies' fightback it would pay to be forgiving.
'We were all frustrated because we have come to expect a lot from these men," Hansen added.
"Some of what we got in the last 30 minutes wasn't where wanted it to be. Everyone in the (coaches) box was frustrated, and I would say everyone on the park was frustrated.
"We just didn't arrest the error rate and it just kept coming at us. That is another learning for a group that is re-establishing itself. It will give us something to really focus on when we go to Dunedin. It won't do us any harm. If we had gone on and won the game, playing the way we were in the first half. I don't that that would have done us any good, either.
"Everyone now and again we have to sit back and accept we played pretty well tonight, enjoy the moment for what it is and tomorrow we will start getting back into it and trying to win again."
The best of the back division was second five-eighth Sonny Bill Williams. Williams took a head knock in the first quarter - and it was surprising he wasn't hauled off for a concussion test - but staggered to his feet and pulled off another set of tackles.
Centre Ryan Crotty, replaced in the second half, took a frightful battering at times but like Williams was always charging back into the line and he bagged a first-half double, as did wing Rieko Ioane.
No 8 Kieran Read and openside flanker Sam Cane were outstanding and blindside flanker Liam Squire added some vigor on attack, using his pace to stretch out and was rewarded with a try in the first half.
The Wallabies, led by their wee battler of a captain in Michael Hooper, gained some respect with their fightback and Beale and Folau added an attacking edge even though the game was already lost by the time they started making line breaks.
The Aussies confronted the haka by standing in an arrow formation, with Hooper at the narrowest point. It didn't work. They must have better tricks up their sleeves for Bledisloe II.
All Blacks 54 (Rieko Ioane 2, Ryan Crotty 2, Liam Squire, Sonny Bill Williams, Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith tries; Beauden Barrett 7 con) Wallabies 34 (Curtis Rona, Tevita Kuridrani, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau tries; Bernard Foley 4 con, 2 pen) HT: 40-6.
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