All Blacks get their finishing spot on
STEVE Hansen, of course, saw this coming in his crystal ball. But surely not this soon, and not this decisively.
Earlier in the week the All Blacks coach had urged us to have patience, and promised that his hot-and-cold All Blacks would flip the form switch when it mattered.
Well, how about the first clash of the season against the old enemy Springboks at a full QBE Stadium in Albany? This eight tries to nil, 57-0 clinical, recordbreaking demolition of the South Africans was their best display of the season. More sustained than Sydney. More emphatic than the series opener against the British and Irish Lions.
It was sublime, scintillating and sensational. Rugby of the highest quality – from one team at least.
It was the All Blacks at their absolute best. The starters laid the platform superbly and the supersubs came on and finished the business.
It was also the New Zealanders’ fifth straight victory over the South Africans, their eighth on the bounce at home and their 10th in the last 11 matchups between these two superpowers of southern hemisphere rugby.
This puts Hansen’s men in a near unassailable position in the Rugby Championship, with their fourth straight victory for the campaign taking the All Blacks to 19 points, with the second-placed Boks stuck on 11 points.
On a stellar night for many in black, was Rieko Ioane their best? He continued his brilliant play in this statement first full season with the All Blacks, adding another try to his collection and looking razor-sharp in all he did.
Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett were both also up somewhere near their best, with Barrett’s goalkicking accuracy hopefully silencing his critics permanently, and his distribution spot-on. Nehe Milner-Skudder, with two tries, was also busy and dangerous in all he did.
Up front the scrum survived a few early anxious moments, the lineout shaded a wobbly Springboks one and Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and replacement Scott Barrett showcased their special abilities. The bench were on the money.
The All Blacks produced a magic first 40 as they pounced on practically every opportunity created, ran in four tries and raced out to a 31-0 lead. It was slick and seriously skilful stuff, and the South Africans simply had no answer to it.
And, for those counting, Beauden Barrett slotted all five of his kicks with the cool precision of Dan Carter on a good day. Yes, that was the critics putting their poisoned pens away.
The tries were all highlights reel stuff, too, with those instinctive halves Aaron Smith and Barrett all over them with their creativity.
The first, to Ioane (his seventh in seven tests) came when Smith reacted quickly from a penalty, took the tap and put in a pinpoint left-footed kick into space for the win to race on to.
From there the catch-yourbreath moments came regularly. Milner-Skudder snaffled an intercept, found Barrett, and then took a no-look, back-flick pass from the No 10 to finish what he started; Scott Barrett (on for Liam Squire who failed an HIA) scored when Dane Coles and MilnerSkudder turned a short Barrett crosskick into a gilt-edged opportunity; and big Brodie Retallick finished the first-half scoring thundering down the middle to finish an opportunity created by Ioane’s speed and dazzling feet and Coles’ fabulous support play.
Of course, we wondered whether there would be a dialling off of the effort in the second half. It had happened before.
But this time they stayed on point, with their line intact, and adding four further tries themselves over the second 40. Milner-Skudder dotted down for his second off Beauden Barrett’s superb cutout pass and Ofa Tu’ungafasi came off the bench to produce a power score (his first in test footy) off the back of a short lineout.
Lima Sopoaga got on the board by finishing a blockbuster run from Anton Lienert-Brown down the middle (sitting Handre Pollard on his bum in the process) and Codie Taylor completed the route off the lineout drive.
A final thought: how deliciously good was it to have a test controlled so expertly and efficiently, without a hint of controversy, by Nigel Owens who confirmed his status as the best referee in the business.