With the All Blacks flattered by their 57-23 rugby test win against gallant Fiji in Dunedin on Saturday night, the selectors still don’t know who comprise their best team.
With Covid-19 isolation precautions seriously disrupting Fiji’s preparation, they exceeded all expectations in trailing 23-31 before reserve Dane Coles completed an astonishing four-try haul in the final half-hour upon coming off the bench.
Hooker Coles’ brilliance brought the All Blacks try tally to nine, six more than Fiji, but the selectors won’t be deceived by that score or the alarming weaknesses exposed by the visitors.
Renowned for the athleticism of their backs, Fiji coaches Vern Cotter and Jason Ryan have injected in their forwards a fierce competitiveness that stems from their Canterbury roots.
Fiji were infinitely stronger than a sadly depleted Tongan team that introduced 13 test debutants and were blitzed 102-0 with right wing Will Jordan leading the try-scoring with five.
Having lost their 2019 World Cup semi-final to England when the English forwards produced more power and grunt, the All Blacks won the Bledisloe and Tri-Nations championships last year despite losing tests to Australia and Argentina.
That gave Ian Foster a 50-50 record as head coach, well short of predecessor Steve Hansen who believes the likeable Foster should be signed up through to the 2023 World Cup despite Scott Robertson’s prolonged winning streak as the Crusaders Super Rugby mentor.
It was reserves Coles and Sam Whitelock who were by far the All Blacks’ best forwards against Fiji although Brodie Retallick’s return from Japan showed he still retains his athleticism if not yet his old strength.
New captain Aaron Smith and first-five Brendon Barrett played well without setting the world on fire within a backline starring second-five David Havili and right wing Sevu Reece.
Fiji’s strength at the breakdown at the expense of well-performed Super Rugby loose forwards Ethan Blackadder, Hoskins Sotutu and Shannon Frizell could favour the return of Ardie Savea, Luke Jacobson and Akira Ioane for the next crack at Fiji on Saturday night at Hamilton while Dalton Papalii recovers from a calf injury.
Others to have starred against an admittedly much weaker Tonga were fullback Damian McKenzie, wing Jordan and halfbacks Brad Weber and Finlay Christie.
Unfortunately, the mercurial McKenzie dislocated a finger against Tonga.
Given a full week to prepare, Fiji should maintain their improvement provided their endurance can match their courage, physicality and natural flair.
Meanwhile Novak Djokovic has joined Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the only men in tennis history to win 20 majors upon claiming Wimbledon 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 against Italy’s Matteo Berrettini. It was Djokovic’s third consecutive Wimbledon success, giving him a total of six, nine Australian Opens, two French and three United States.
On August 3 he will seek to win another US Open to become the first man to win a calendar year Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.
It was also nice to see Ash Barty fulfil her dream of emulating fellow Australian indigenous player Evonne Goolagong Cawley by becoming Wimbledon women’s singles tennis champion.
Her 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 win against talented Karolina Pliskova culminated after she had grabbed the first 14 points of the match.
Like Cawley, Barty is a gracious champion who regularly outwits opponents with her shot selection.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer