It was as ugly as pineapple on pizza for long stretches as the All Blacks fumbled their way through probably their worst performance of the season in Rome on Sunday (NZT).
Ian Foster’s touring New Zealanders eventually completed a comfortable enough victory over Italy, 47-9, seven tries without reply, to extend their perfect record against the Azzurri to 16-0, and make it three wins from three on this northern tour.
They have now clocked up 675 points in 2021, a record for a calendar year, eclipsing the Springboks’ 658 in 2007, and their seven tries took them to 96 – five more than Argentina in 2003.
But for vast tracts this was a messy, disjointed All Blacks performance where their vaunted attacking game was mostly blunted by a committed defensive effort from Kieran Crowley’s men.
Four of the All Blacks’ seven tries came via the lineout drive, with the New Zealanders dominant in this phase, and the scrum. Starting hooker Dane Coles, named player of the match, grabbed two of them through the opening 40, and his replacement, Asafo Aumua, matched that effort over the run home.
Aumua, Fin Christie and Hoskins Sotutu all notched their first tries in the black jersey as the New Zealanders rode home on a dominant set piece, but not a heck of a lot else in a forgettable afternoon for the All Blacks’ game in the Italian capital.
Yes, it was far from impressive. But also almost totally irrelevant as regards the tricky closing fortnight of this All Blacks tour north, against Ireland and France. On the strength of what we saw at Stadio Olimpico, not too many of the starters will feature prominently in next week’s matchup against the Irish in Dublin.
Coles was probably one who did enough to earn himself a spot in the 23, with the veteran hooker best on display for the New Zealanders. Christie battled well in an extended stint off the bench at halfback too, while Sam Cane got through 80 minutes in a mostly positive fashion. The second-half effort was better and the impact men managed to add something positive.
But young midfielders Quinn Tupaea and Braydon Ennor probably failed to do enough to force their way into contention for what lies ahead, while normally reliable types like Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga were not able to provide their usual quality.
Credit, too, to Italy who, for all their limitations, managed to put the All Blacks under plenty of pressure with their defensive pressure (which wilted just a little late) and feistiness.
The New Zealanders scored just three tries over a shaky first 40 minutes to take a 21-6 lead into the halftime sheds – and no doubt a decent dressing-down from Foster who would not have been happy with what he saw through the opening stanza.
After about as horrible an opening quarter as the All Blacks have produced in 2021 – scoreless, somewhat gormless and rife with errors – the New Zealanders finally settled around the half-hour mark with a couple of strikes to settle nerves, and ease out to a 14-0 advantage.
It had not been pretty for the New Zealanders through the first 27 or so minutes, the Italians unsettling them with their defensive linespeed and their pressure off the high kicks. The errors came thick and fast, interspersed with the penalties, and the Azzurri well and truly stayed in the contest with their physicality and commitment.
Replacement halfback Christie – on for Brad Weber early after the starter took a serious knock to the nose – scored the opening seven-pointer in the 28th minute when he made the most of a big All Blacks scrum that turned over possession just metres from the line.
Coles followed that up just a couple of minutes later with the first of his opening-half brace, via the lineout drive and a well-timed detachment, and the veteran No 2, playing his 78th test, repeated the dose just shy of the break to complete his team’s scoring.
Coles apart, the All Blacks pretty much universally failed to fire through the first 40, managing just 115 run metres, 5 defenders beaten and the single clean break. Throw in 10 handling errors and an efficient tackling rate from the home side (67 of 72) and it was a recipe for mediocrity from the visitors.
The New Zealanders were dominant at the set piece – at least – but McKenzie had a half to forget at the back, the midfield failed to find their rhythm, Mo’unga appeared unsettled tactically and the wider men received little in the way of quality ball to run on to. The loosies, too, failed to stamp their mark on proceedings in a messy first 40.
It was slightly better over the run home. But only slightly.
Aumua added his brace off lineout drives, Sevu Reece grabbed a sharp one (before hobbling off injured) courtesy of a nice popped pass by Ofa Tuungafasi to Christie and Sotutu also got on the sheet with a sharp finish off a quality short ball from Mo’unga to George Bridge.
Italian job done. Eventually. Next stop Dublin.
All Blacks 47 (Finlay Christie, Dane Coles 2, Sevu Reece, Asafo Aumua 2, Hoskins Sotutu tries; Richie Mo’unga 6 cons), Italy 9 (Paolo Garbisi 3 pens). HT: 21-6.
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