The All Blacks were near perfection in their 92-7 thrashing of under-strength Tonga at Hamilton last Saturday – but South Africa will pose a far greater threat in their first pool game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
However, the Tongan game was a massive confidence booster for Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty who have returned from injury and played beautifully, Smith reminding us that he was, and may still be, the best fullback in the world.
Two tries was just reward for his brilliance on a day the All Blacks scored 14, with classy left wing George Bridge grabbing four as the back three prospered through the quicksilver hands of Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown.
It wasn’t that long ago that it seemed the selectors regarded Sonny Bill Williams and Jack Goodhue as their best centre combination before they got injured.
SBW has had a lot of bad luck with injuries and it’s a wonder his nickname isn’t Mummy after all the tape he’s needed to patch him up. However he did play well in the 36-0 thumping of the Wallabies before he broke down in training once more.
He and Goodhue are not alone with Richie Mo’unga, Rieko Ioane, Sam Cane and Dane Coles not risked against Tonga.
All should be fit for World Cup action although Ioane, still only 22 and regarded the world’s best wing last year, is unlikely to supplant Bridge in the starting 15 against the Springboks.
With Beauden and Jordie Barrett, Crotty, Lienert-Brown, Smith and Bridge all capable of playing multiple positions, the All Blacks are well served for versatility.
If Mo’unga’s shoulder is not fully recovered, Barrett and Smith could remain at first-five and fullback for the Boks match, allowing the electrifying Sevu Reece to remain on the right wing.
Certainly having won the Rugby Championship, the powerful Boks will present a much tougher forward pack and won’t allow the All Black backs anywhere near the same latitude they enjoyed against Tonga.
Nevertheless, it was pleasing to see loosies Kieran Read, Ardie Savea and Matt Todd thrive on the strong platform set by the tight forwards with Nepo Laulala and Patrick Tuipuloto justifying their promotion to the starting pack.
Laulala has the mobility the deposed Owen Franks lacked and Tuipulotu is thriving on his new diet with bone-crunching tackles.
The speedy Savea has been outstanding all season and captain Read is back to his best and leading by example.
With TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett content to provide quick service to their outside backs, Barrett’s replacement Josh Ioane enjoyed a spectacular start to his test career when from his second-half kickoff, Bridge took the ball on the full to score in 7.4 seconds.
Despite taking a few heavy tackles, the young Highlander also completed a splendid debut by providing the perfect grubber for another Bridge try and demonstrated a fast pair of hands.
Meanwhile having announced her arrival on the world tennis scene by beating Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the ASB women’s final, Auckland fans would have delighted in Bianca Andreescu’s 6-3,7-5 United States Open triumph against Serena Williams.
The 19-year-old Canadian has every shot in the book including a blistering forehand and is a firm believer in attack being the best means of defence.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer