All Blacks get their fin­ish­ing spot on

Sunday News - - RUGBY - MARC HIN­TON

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.

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