By the end of New Zealand’s rout of Namibia, the All Blacks had a scrum-half at 10, their starting fly-half on the wing, a wing in the centre and a prop in the sin-bin for the second time, but it did not matter one bit.
The Pool B encounter at the Tokyo Stadium lived up to expectations, with the All Blacks running in 11 tries, saving the best for last against a Namibia side that was much better value than the 71-9 scoreline suggests.
Yes, this may have been biggest victory of the World Cup so far, but to tell the true story, you have to acknowledge that Namibia first took the lead of the match, and New Zealand’s advantage with 34 minutes gone was just a single point.
The All Blacks showed plenty of changes, 12 in total to the starting XV, with Jordie Barrett getting his first run-out at fly-half, but with names such as Lienert-Brown, Whitelock and both Ben and Aaron Smith in the side, this was always going to go one way.
But for 34 wonderful minutes, there were faint dreams of an upset. New Zealand scored the opener five minutes in through Sevu Reece, though a Damian Stevens penalty had put Namibia in front to punish what was a very ill-disciplined start from the reigning world champions. With New Zealand signalling their intent by sending their first penalty to the corner, Barrett sent an inch-perfect cross-field kick to Reece to score comfortably.
It took 15 minutes though for the All Blacks to cross again, with the stand-out Anton Lienert-Brown released by Ardie Savea’s smart inside ball and the centre produced a beautiful finish from distance to score.
With Barrett missing both conversions though, Namibia remained in touch and two more penalties from Stevens in quick succession cut the lead to a point at the half-hour mark. With tighthead prop Nepo Laulala also sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Prince Gaoseb, Namibia dared to dream. Furthermore, Steve Hansen stuck to his plan to bring Brodie Retallick off after 30 minutes in what was his first run out since dislocating his shoulder against South Africa in July.
But perhaps the only thing more dangerous than a 15-man All Blacks side is a 14-man All Blacks side.
Replacement prop Angus Ta’avao and Ben Smith both went over for relatively simple tries during the sin-bin period, with Barrett finding his kicking boots to see his side win that 10-minute phase 14-0, and as Ben Smith dived over to add the fourth and seal the bonus point on the stroke of half-time, normality resumed with New Zealand leading 24-9 at the break.
It was not perhaps the half-time lead that anyone expected New Zealand to have, at least those wearing black, but some of the rugby that they produced after the break was simply stunning.
A close-range finish from Joe Moody straight after the restart got the ball rolling, quickly followed by Lienert-Brown’s second that saw Barrett rise to his time on the big stage, bouncing through two tackles, breaking clear and throwing a beautiful long pass out to Jack Goodhue, before looping round and delivering the final pass to Lienert-Brown. Reece doubled up himself with a powerful finish on the wing.
Sam Whitelock added the eight try with a pick-and go before Ben Smith added his second with another simple finish, and Barrett deservedly went over on a crash-ball as Steve Hansen rang the changes, though they soon picked up their second yellow card when Ofa Tuungafasi was sin-binned for a similar tackle to that of Ta’avao. Again, referee Pascal Gauzere reviewed the tackle, noted the contact to the head and acknowledged the mitigating circumstances of players already head to ground. On both occasions, Gauzere got them spot on.
But the All Blacks saved the best for last, with replacements Rieko Ioane, Brad Weber and TJ Perenara combining to score a try that brought the stadium to its feet, with Weber flicking a round-the-back pass to Perenara, who produced a flying finish to dot the ball down in the corner in mid-flight.
There will be little to take from the match to test New Zealand’s credentials, but then it was never going to be a day for that anyway. Instead, it was just a day to enjoy what was happening in front of you, and there haven’t been too many chances to do that this tournament given the drama that has surrounded the tournament in scrutinising every single referee call.
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