New Zealand had to fight from behind to beat a spirited Barbarians side that lived up to the invitational side’s creative reputation at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday afternoon, with a second-string All Blacks claiming a 31-22 victory to kick-off their end-of-year European tour.
The reigning world champions rested a number of players, including captain Kieran Read, meaning that fly-half Beauden Barrett led the team for the day, and the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year will have been pleased to see his side run in five tries through TJ Perenara, Vaea Fifita, Ngani Laumape, Sam Cane and Nathan Harris.
The Barbarians led for 55 minutes, but the talent available to All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen eventually told. Yet there was plenty of fight in a Southern Hemisphere-dominated side as they scored four tries themselves through Richie Mo’unga, Sam Carter and a George Bridge double.
The Barbarians struck first inside 10 minutes, much to the delight of the crowd. Flinging the ball from left to right in the All Blacks’ 22, full-back George Bridge went close and could have sent New Zealand’s own Julian Savea in had he spotted him unmarked outside. Yet the ball was quickly recycled for another All Black in Richie Mo’Unga to cross on the right, although he was unable to add the conversion.
Genuine thoughts of an upset suddenly sprung to mind 15 minutes into the match when another All Black exile, in Bristol’s Steven Luatua, intercepted TJ Perenara’s wide pass from a ruck in his own 22 and galloped all the way to the opposite end of the pitch. Knowing he didn’t have the legs to fend off the recovering Waisake Naholo, he wisely offloaded to Bridge to finish the score.
The All Blacks looked rattled, but they finally clicked three minutes later thanks to a beautiful offload from Naholo in the right corner as he was being dragged into touch, with Perenara on hand to collect the ball and score all in the same motion.
They did so with captain Barrett off the pitch, with the fly-half having a hand injury tended to that he would return from, but soon enough he was joining his teammates back under the posts as the Barbarians scored their third try of the match. Following a number of phases from a lineout deep in All Blacks territory, lock Sam Carter barged his way through Anton Lienert-Brown and Ofa Tu’ungafusi to score, with Mo’unga finally finding his kicking boots to add the conversion for a 17-5 lead.
The All Blacks refused to let the impressive Baa-Baas get away on the scoreboard though, and it was again thanks to Naholo that they scored their second try when, having shrugged off Bridge, he committed Vince Aso and Atu Moli before offloading for flanker Fifita to dive over to reduce the lead to 17-10 at the break.
The exhibition atmosphere was certainly not lost on the game despite the surprising competitiveness of the Barbarians side, with referee Nigel Owens enjoying his analysis of each try with designated water boy Kieran Read after each All Blacks score. The regular skipper is enjoying a weekend off before the autumn internationals begin next weekend.
Owens wouldn’t let his officiating be influenced by the game though, with the Welshman penalising scrum-half Andy Ellis for a blatant crooked scrum feed before telling the Kiwi “if you’re going to cheat, cheat fair”, much to the amusement of those with the referee’s comments in their ear though the Ref Link.
It was far from a polished performance from the All Blacks, even if it was a second-string side, and you would not be surprised if Steve Hansen let loose at the break to try and kick them into gear. If so, it worked.
Three tries in six minutes put the All Blacks ahead for the first time, with the destructive Ngani Laumape playing a key role in turning around the scoreboard. The Hurricanes centre, who only made his debut earlier this year against the British and Irish Lions, ran over Mo’unga to score New Zealand’s second try, before his strong run to the corner allowed replacement scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow to feed Sam Cane to score. The third try pivoted on a bounce of the ball as Kerr-Barlow’s box-kick wrong-footed Bridge and allowed hooker Nathan Harris to dive over. Barrett converted all three tries, giving New Zealand a healthy 31-17 lead.
Not long after, the sad sight of Luatua limping off brought a deserved round of applause from the 62, 546 fans in attendance, in full recognition of the Bristol forward’s contribution to the three Barbarians tries, although the flurry of replacements had disjointed the match considerably along with the persistent rain falling from above.
With the result in the bag, Hansen unloaded the replacements’ bench to hand debuts to Asafo Aumua, Tim Perry and Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen, and while bigger tests lie ahead in the form of France, Scotland and Wales, it will have been a useful run-out for many fringe players looking to impress Hansen.
For the Barbarians, they finished with their heads held high as Bridge raced over with the final play of the game after a creative punt from a penalty to Aso on the wing. That meant the scoreline reflected a much more even game with the All Blacks running out the deserved victors.
Barbarians: Bridge; Savea, Buckman (Du Preez, 68), Vorster, Aso; Mo’unga, Ellis (Drummond, 51); Van Rooyen (Franks, 45), Strauss (Van der Merwe, 45), Moli (Smith, 45); Carter (Ackermann, 53), Bird (Britz, 50); Luatua (Hunt, 62), Smith, Whitelock.
New Zealand: Havili (Sopoaga, 46); Naholo (Duffie, 68), Lienert-Brown, Laumape, Tamanivalu; Barrett, Perenara (Kerr-Barlow, 46); Hames (Perry, 55), Harris (Aumua, 68), Tu’ungafasi (Toomaga-Allen, 68); Romano, Barrett (Tuipolotu, 55); Fifita, Savea, Kaino (Cane, 46).
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