LYON, France — New Zealand resembled the All Blacks of old in Lyon on Friday night, running up a monstrous 96-17 Rugby World Cup victory over an Italian side that caught the Kiwis at their very best. But the question must also be asked: What purpose exactly this attacking onslaught will have served when far greater challengers are sitting just over the French horizon?
Whether this was an ideal tune-up, or perhaps little more than a glorified training run for the All Blacks’ quarterfinal in two weeks’ time remains to be seen. But given they face a similar non-contest next week against Uruguay, New Zealand could have done little more to suggest they are still capable of matching it with the world’s top three sides, considering who was in front of them.
Their creativity, execution of skill, kicking game and set-piece were all a joy to watch at Groupama Stadium, as Richie Mo’unga, Ardie Savea and Aaron Smith all ran riot, while wingers Mark Telea and Will Jordan provided the quality finishers out wide.
Smith had a hat-trick inside 34 minutes, the veteran No. 9 crossing in three contrasting ways; first at the back from a rolling maul, the second a blindside play where he stepped back inside from close range, and the third the classic halfback’s supporting line up the middle of the paddock where he was perfectly placed to take a pass from Jordie Barrett, who was also in the thick of the action throughout, to run away under the sticks.
The three-time world champions went at better than a point a minute for the first 40 — and eventually the entire game — producing the kind of play that few teams can match when they are afforded the time, space, and turnover ball the Italians offered up in Lyon.
For all the recent improvement in Italian rugby, including wins over Wales and Australia, they played right into the All Blacks’ hands, and had little more than two minutes of endeavour at the start of the game to show for their first-half trouble.
With pressure came penalties, with penalties came territory, and with territory came points for New Zealand, though their finest effort of a blistering first-half was an 85-metre special that started with a sublime short pass from Retallick to Savea and finished up the other end of the field with Telea stepping back inside several Italian defenders for one of the tries of the tournament.
If the mercy rule had been on offer at halftime, the Azzurri may well have been inclined to take it. And you can only wonder what might happen to Uruguay next week if the All Blacks run out a similarly full-strength lineup.
This was a completely demoralizing experience for the Italians, and one they will want to forget as soon as infinitely possible. But it was only halftime, and the score was 49-3.
New Zealand were first out of the sheds after the break, even before referee Matthew Carley, and for a brief moment it appeared Italy might not be about to join them. But they did soon arrive, and the near-capacity crowd at Groupama Stadium greeted their return with a bronx cheer.
Again, Italy started the second half in confident fashion. But they were unable to capitalise on two lineouts inside the All Blacks’ 10, with the New Zealanders able to get up and steal the throw on both occasions.
Then success, at last. Unable to move the maul after finally securing the throw at the third attempt, the Italians shifted the ball to the backs and when Monty Ioane was able to fend off his man, it was left to Ange Capuozzo to set himself for a sprint to the corner. The winger did just enough with an epic swan dive to find the stripe, and the crowd erupted in celebration.
Their unbridled joy at breaching the All Blacks’ line was however shortlived, as almost immediately from the restart Scott Barrett charged down the Italians’ clearing kick and his second-row partner Retallick had a try down the short side moments later.
Beyond that, New Zealand added further five-pointers to Telea, Dane Coles [two], Dalton Papali’i Damian McKenzie, Jordan, Anton Lienert-Brown. Foster’s men genuinely looked like they might open Italy every time they touched the ball. In the end the All Blacks finished with an astonishing 19 clean breaks.
The pick of their second-half efforts was finished by Jordan, who chipped over the top down the right touchline between two wondrous offloads from Retallick and Savea, his skipper’s ball coming after a gut-busting chase for which he was rewarded with a dream bounce.
It was a scintillating attacking display, the kind that brings fans to their feet, delivers highlights for end-of-season dinners, and makes kids want to play the game. And, oh, how rugby needs that right now. Mo’unga, meanwhile, booted eight of nine conversions, few of which were gifts, before he was replaced by McKenzie, in what will be a timely boost of confidence for the All Blacks pivot.
But it is unlikely the kind of rugby New Zealand will be able to play once they return to Paris after next Friday’s clash with Uruguay, or at least hope to do so for any great length of time. And they will surely recognise that themselves more than anyone.
The All Blacks’ draw was always going to throw up a potential issue, too. With France first up in a blockbuster opener, and Italy third wedged between games against minnows Namibia and Uruguay, just how ready New Zealand will be for a massive quarterfinal, likely against Ireland, but possibly also South Africa or Scotland, will be revealed in a couple of weeks’ time.
That draw could, however, also have the opposite effect and leave the All Blacks fresh for the knockout stage when the chief Pool B combatants have had at least one more significantly rugged test.
And what remains abundantly clear is that if the All Blacks can create the momentum, find their groove, and execute like they did on Friday night, they are entirely capable of lifting a fourth Webb Ellis crown at the end of October. Perhaps without the same verve and joie de vivre, but by building on the set-piece dominance, skill execution and clarity of play, that also wowed the 57,083 fans inside Groupama Stadium.
The intensity will be far greater come the knockout stage, so too the physicality and pressure, while the All Blacks also have recent losses to both France and South Africa to contend with. But if they can bring at least some of Friday night’s swagger to the Stade de France over the coming weeks, they simply cannot be crossed off at contenders.
That won’t have been the case before Friday night’s romp either, but their 79-point evisceration of Italy was a timely reminder of their ingrained rugby gifts and how they could yet shift the course of the tournament’s defining weeks.