New Zealand v Tonga, Rugby World Cup, September 9, 2011
All Blacks hurdle opening challenge
Huw Baines at Eden Park
September 9, 2011
Richard Kahui crosses for one of his two tries in the first-half
© Getty Images
New Zealand got the Rugby World Cup underway in fine fashion with a 41-10 victory over Tonga at Eden Park on Friday, wrapping up a bonus point in the tournament opener thanks to a first-half display that was thrilling at times.
With Auckland's waterfront groaning under the weight of thousands of All Black fans and Eden Park shrouded in expectation, Graham Henry's side followed up a spectacular opening ceremony with some fireworks of their own, largely from an experimental back-three, before fading as the game ground to its conclusion.
Richard Kahui - selected on the wing for the first time since 2008 - picked up the Man of the Match award as well as a brace of tries, while Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg put veteran Mils Muliaina on notice with a double of his own, including the first try of this year's global gathering.
Blindside Jerome Kaino and centre Ma'a Nonu added further scores in a frustrating second-half, with Tonga upping their game thanks to some well-timed substitutions. Replacement loose-head Sona Taumalolo notched their only try just before the end as the All Blacks' precision deserted them, with Henry likely to find plenty of room for improvement prior to their heavyweight showdown with France on September 24.
Dan Carter kicked the All Blacks into an early 3-0 lead after a frenetic start from both sides. Kahui was forced into touch after some probing across the field, but a poorly-executed quick throw from Tonga gifted New Zealand another shot, which they took thanks to their playmaker's boot.
Kahui continued an impressive start to the game by defusing an arching bomb on his flank and emerged again to set up the opening try with some impressive footwork in midfield. The Chiefs back shrugged out of a first-up tackle and put his side on the front-foot, popping up later in the movement to fire the ball to Nonu, who put Dagg over with minimal fuss. Carter fluffed his lines with the conversion, leaving New Zealand 8-0 up after 11 minutes.
Tonga generated their first meaningful possession soon after, forcing an error as the All Blacks failed to release on the floor. Fly-half Kurt Morath, playing his 10th Test, caught his penalty attempt well but saw it slide past the posts.
Unfortunately for the Islanders, the All Blacks immediately capitalised with a try of rare quality. Carter put depth on the ball to give Nonu room to work, with the outside-centre able to engineer some space for the impressive Sonny Bill Williams along the flank. An audacious inside flick from the former league star sent the door crashing open and Isaia Toeava provided the link play for Kahui to step inside the last man and score. Carter's conversion was good for a 15-0 lead following the opening quarter.
Williams was over in the corner moments later but referee George Clancy stepped in to award a penalty for crossing, momentarily relieving the pressure on Tonga before further trouble in the form of Dagg's second score. New Zealand moved quickly off turnover ball and again had a Williams offload at the heart of their efforts, the Crusaders midfielder hurling the ball out to Dagg after being chopped down five metres out.
Carter improved the score as the clock ticked past the 30-minute mark and was calling for the tee again two minutes later after Kahui's bonus point try. The fly-half had earlier outfoxed the Tongan rush defence with a wraparound move, firing the ball out to Dagg, whose goose-step and back-door offload allowed Kahui to carry a tackler over out wide. Finally, after a brief frisson of excitement as former Auckland team-mates Ali Williams and Soane Tonga'uiha squared off, Morath got Tonga on the board with a well-struck penalty on the stroke of half-time.
The All Blacks contrived to miss several gilt-edged opportunities in the opening moments of the second-half, with Toeava notably passing up a certain try after a break and deft grubber from Williams. The winger's blushes looked to have been spared moments later but for the intervention of the TMO, who ruled that he had clipped the touchline after being sent on an angle to the corner by Carter.
Tonga enjoyed their best spell of possession after the interval but were unable to make serious inroads, with another superb piece of play from Kahui knocking the wind from them for a time. The winger took the ball tight to the line and floated a well-judged chip into space, regathering off a good bounce and firing inside for Kaino to score. Carter missed the conversion but the first points of the half gave the hosts a comfortable 31-point cushion 22 minutes from the close.
Tonga's response was swift and impressive, with their burly replacements coming to the party in a series of close-range moves around the fringes. After forcing their way close to the line they then reversed the form book for the briefest of moments, rattling the home scrum and angering the locals as the set-piece was re-set time and again five metres out.
Their patience was rewarded as Taumalolo - a familiar face in New Zealand with Hawke's Bay and the Chiefs - burrowed over from a matter of inches. Morath added the simple conversion with seven minutes left on the clock, which proved to be enough time for the All Blacks to add a full stop to their victory. Nonu crossed under the sticks after sparking the move himself, the future Blues centre trading passes with replacement fly-half Colin Slade and rounding off with ease. Slade added the extras, sealing a satisfactory opening day for the hosts.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is a freelance rugby journalist