Tonga defeated but not disgraced against New Zealand

Most of the pre-match talk was about whether the All Blacks were ready for knockout rounds, whether they were a bit off their rhythm or staggering into another World Cup let-down. On the basis of tonight’s performance against Tonga in Newcastle, the critics may be right. I don’t often get to watch New Zealand play, but overall they did not seem like the dominating world beaters they are usually thought of as, despite what the scoreline might suggest.

Tonga defeated but not disgraced against New Zealand

The spectacle of the Haka following without break from the Sipi Tau was the perfect scene setter for what was a local derby. Tonga had nothing to lose, with qualification unfortunately beyond them, so what better licence to upset the world number one team? Winger Fetu’u Vainikolo was certainly in the mood early on, causing trouble down the left wing. The Ikale Tahi matched the All Blacks for at least ten minutes, with a scrum penalty win in their own 22 a highlight of that. Sadly, the recurring theme of a lost lineout resulted into some wonderful offloading between New Zealand’s trio of Smiths, with fullback Ben crossing for the opening try. An encouraging sign for the Pacific Islanders will have been that the superior handling and offloading was the only real difference between the two sides in the opening quarter. Captain Nili Latu voiced concerns about Tonga’s (and Tier Two nations in general) lack of games against Tier One sides, and this match will only go to support that. Ironically it was only a knock-on by Fijian born Waisake Naholo that prevented a second New Zealand try after a Kurt Morath penalty made it 7-3.

New Zealand added a second try before half time through prop Tony Woodcock barging over from close range, but skipper Kieran Read was sent to the sin bin for pulling down a thundering Tongan maul that looked destined for the try line. Several scrums followed and then the men in red were judged to have been agonisingly held up after several burrows towards the line. A chorus of boos greeted that TMO decision as the teams left for half time, and one has to wonder whether it would have been the same outcome had it been at the other end.

The second half continued in the same vein, with more unforced errors from the All Blacks; centurion Ma’a Nonu kicked out on the full under no pressure. Unfortunately this also meant another prolonged attack by Tonga that reaped little reward, except a second Morath penalty. If only Tonga had played with this sort of intensity and ambition against Georgia, they would surely have sealed automatic qualification for Japan 2019 by finishing third.

What New Zealand did prove tonight was that when they avoid errors they are clinical. Two quick fire tries from Nehe Milner-Skudder that sandwiched a third Morath penalty put the game beyond the Tongans at 28-9, but unsurprisingly the physicality never disappeared but defenders occasionally did, with substitute Sonny Bill Williams cantering unopposed under the posts for try number five. Following a yellow card for the Tonga replacement hooker New Zealand were able to pile on the points in the last ten minutes, with further tries from Cane and Nonu for a final score of 47 -9.

The Tongan squad will now disperse across the globe to return to their club sides, having got stronger and stronger as the tournament went on, but ultimately disappointed that their opening day defeat had them on the back foot in terms of qualification.

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