NEVER MIND that Richie McCaw didn’t play his 100th test or that Mils Muliaina didn’t get the opportunity to remind those who believe he is on borrowed time of what he is capable of at fullback.
What the All Blacks’ 83-7 routing of Japan presented was a chance to examine the résumés of some of those players pushing for inclusion in the match-day 22 for the remainder of the tournament.
Those under the microscope during the 13-try thrashing of the Brave Blossoms were Victor Vito, Andy Ellis, Colin Slade, Isaia Toeava and Sonny Bill Williams. With the exception of Vito and Slade, the others gave Graham Henry and co. plenty to think about ahead of the key pool clash against France at Eden Park this Saturday.
As for the game itself, Japan simply did not have the pace, power and tactics to compete with the All Blacks. Resting many of the front-line players that were part of the side which earned plenty of plaudits after its the opening game against Les Bleus, the second-stringers were simply not on the same level as their New Zealand counterparts. It was always going to be the case. Anyone who thought otherwise was kidding themselves.
Ma’a Nonu was at his destructive best and deservedly took out man of the match honours. Every time he got his mitts on the pill he struck fear into the would-be Japanese tacklers and was a constant threat with ball in hand. Using his strength and speed, he was able to break the line at will. When defenders swarmed to him, it created space for his colleagues further out wide to cash in – and they did.
His midfield partner in crime, Conrad Smith, was equally dominant, running great angles and lines on attack and mowing down anything that tried to test his defensive credentials, while Richard Kahui has probably done enough to secure one of the wing spots after another polished, allround display that netted him two tries.
In the forwards, Jerome Kaino proved for the second week in a row just how valuable his physicality and ball-carrying ability is to the All Blacks’ game plan. Fellow loose forward Adam Thomson was also lively at the breakdown and in open play.
For the selectors, however, it was a good chance to have a look at some of the fringe players who are pushing either for inclusion in the match-day team or a prized bench spot. Most certainly put their best foot forward.
Ellis showed some nice touches. The speed of his service was crisp and his short kicking game was top-drawer.
While debate is likely to rage in the coming days about whether he or Piri Weepu should back-up Jimmy Cowan come the big stuff at the tournament, his performance needs to be put in context given he had front-foot and plenty of turnover ball to work with all night.
Perhaps Weepu may be used as a back-up to Dan Carter after Slade’s mixed bag running the cutter. The young Canterbury No 10 passed nicely and kicked nine conversions, but his copybook was far from perfect, which is a worry given the quality – or rather lack thereof – of the opposition.
He missed his three of his first four shots at goal and also gifted Japan its only try, a 40m intercept to busy wing Hirotoki Onozawa. Those two blemishes didn’t prove costly in the final wash-up, but in a knockout game where the margin between success and failure is fine, it could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Vito was another one who failed to grab his chance in a game that suited his style of play to a t. He made a couple of nice runs early, but was hardly sighted from that point on and was subsequently replaced.
It’s not that he did anything wrong – he just failed to fire a shot. As he was against Tonga in the opening game last week, he was like a passenger on a bus looking out the window. There for the ride, but not much else.
With Thomson playing well and Kieran Read expected to be fit for the Canada game, it seems Vito will spend the rest of this campaign twiddling his thumbs in the grandstand.
Toeava looked dangerous from the back, relishing the extra space and making some nice injections into the line, and Williams, playing on the wing when he came off the bench, showed enough signs to suggest that he could provide cover there in the future.
For Japan, there was little to take from this one-sided encounter. It talked about being competitive, but in all honesty, it was anything but.
Still, any valuable – yet brutal lessons – learnt from this hiding will surely serve them well heading into their must-win games against Tonga and Canada.
New Zealand 83
Tries: Richard Kahui (2), Sonny Bill Williams (2), Andrew Ellis, Andrew Hore, Jerome Kaino, Keven Mealamu, Ma'a Nonu, Colin Slade, Conrad Smith, Adam Thomson, Isaia Toeava
Cons: Slade (9)
Try: Hirotoki Onozawa
Con: Murray Williams
38-0 New Zealand
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.