This was supposed to be the first cricket score of the World Cup, a virtually full-strength All Blacks against a second-string Georgia, whose Kiwi coach had opted to rest key players for the final game against Namibia.
For the Georgians, their goal of this World Cup has always been to finish third in their pool and qualify automatically for the next World Cup. The goal of the game prior to kick-off seemed to be little more than damage limitation.
But one of the revelatory teams of the tournament did far more than that, frustrating the All Blacks for great swathes, particularly in the scrums where the Georgians held the edge.
Richie McCaw had iced packed on to his left thigh and calf after limping off the field
More worrying for the All Blacks, however, was the sight of their captain, Richie McCaw, hobbling off late in the game. He had ice packed around his left thigh and calf as he sat on the bench and will be hoping to be fit for the knockout rounds.
The M4 had been brought to a standstill by 70,000 fans converging on Cardiff for a vintage All Blacks performance. This was anything but.
The win was never in doubt but their occasionally slick movement was too often truncated by spilled balls, wayward passes and struggles with the set piece. But much of the credit for that was down to Georgia playing the game of their lives, sucking their more experienced rivals into their own forward-dominated game plan in the first ever encounter between the two sides.
Of course, there were flashes of brilliance from the defending champions as they booked their place in the quarter-finals, with wing Julian Savea accounting for three of the team’s seven tries and the bonus point wrapped up a quarter of the way through the match.
But it was abundantly clear amid a sea of All Black shirts that Georgia were the fans’ favourites.
When the All Blacks took the lead after just 72 seconds – courtesy of Waisake Naholo, in his first match since breaking his leg 10 weeks ago, running virtually unchallenged to the line – it had the hallmarks of a tough night for Georgian players and fans alike.
But within five minutes, Georgia were back level, Naholo once again the creator of points, this time spilling the ball, Beka Tsiklauri kneeing it clear and then scooping it up off the bounce to swallow dive under the posts.
Tsiklauri had barely had a chance to celebrate when he bounced off Savea as the All Blacks wing found himself on the end of a flurry of passes.
Savea’s second try was a virtual replica and that bonus point sealed when Dane Coles slid into the other corner after 22 minutes, the hooker’s try made possible by exquisite back-of-the-hand offloads by Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith.
A Georgia penalty from Lasha Malaguradze, who had converted Georgia’s early try, kept the score to a respectable 22-10 at the break.
Kieran Read eventually crossed the try line in the second half as Georgia, following a raft of substitutions, momentarily lost their shape and Read found a way through from the base of the pack.
Read’s try was remarkably New Zealand’s only score in a 50-minute passage in which Georgia had virtual parity with the world’s No 1 ranked side.
As expected, New Zealand’s superiority showed in the dying moments, the scoreline flattering them with 10 points in the last five minutes: Savea completing his hat-trick and replacement Malakai Fekitoa also scything through.
The biggest cheer, though, went to Georgia flanker Mamuka Gorgodze, named man of the match over the All Black superstars in a bright night for Georgian rugby.Reuse content