Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks' second-half stage fright

All Black fullback Israel Dagg eludes Tonga halfback Taniela Moa to score during last night's World Cup opener at Eden Park. Photo / Paul Estcourt
All Black fullback Israel Dagg eludes Tonga halfback Taniela Moa to score during last night's World Cup opener at Eden Park. Photo / Paul Estcourt

New Zealand 41 Tonga 10

The curtain went up on the World Cup and the All Blacks delivered a main play response with a few acts missing.

For a while they continued the pre-match entertainment which dazzled the 60,000 crowd at Eden Park, showing the attacking threat which hovers throughout their backline and the muscle which infiltrates the pack.

But after they emerged from their halftime spell, they messed up a multitude of try-scoring chances until blindside flanker Jerome Kaino scored on his home track after a 19-minute drought.

Tonga responded with a close-range driving try from Alisona Taumalolo which was converted, giving Tonga the second-half bragging rights with minutes left.

Ma'a Nonu staunched that embarrassment when he backed up for a converted try but it had been a ragged last spell from the tournament favourites.

It was a strange watching the All Blacks fail to reignite their game. They rushed some moves, botched others and looked sloppy compared with their initial cohesion.

Often sides get first-night jitters in these tournaments, they freeze under the glare of the endless publicity which leads into these events.

But the All Blacks had a composed start, delivering more patience and accuracy up front than their last performance in Brisbane.

They held and subdued Tonga, shutting down their forays early with rugged defence and, when they had possession, splintering them with forward drives.

That gave the backs more territory to work in and with the weather co-operating, they were able to work the inside channels or with width to stretch Tonga's defences.

Tonga had won just four times in 17 matches at World Cups. Their victims were Ivory Coast, Italy, USA and Samoa, but no opponent to rival the All Blacks.

They brought plenty of vigour and gusto, but hooker Aleki Lutui was their most experienced player with 30 caps.

In the first World Cup, 24 years ago, the opening individual try went to Michael Jones who ended as one of the tournament stars.

Last night, rising constellation Israel Dagg claimed that individual try-scoring honour when he glided across in the 10th minute to finish several pieces of Richard Kahui magic in the leadup.

They both had pairs after half an hour, profiting from their teammates' vision and their own skills.

A brilliant reverse flip from Sonny Bill Williams and support from Isaia Toeava created Kahui's first before his second came after a solo surge from 35m to beat two defenders.

Dagg's second came when Andrew Hore made a wonderful steal at the breakdown, Victor Vito provided the vital link and offload for his fullback. The All Blacks held a 29-3 advantage at the break, they had quelled their opening night nerves and were ready to create more problems after the interval.

It had been damage-limitation time from Tonga, but they missed too many tackles and were undone by widespread All Black flair.

The visitors held on for almost the entire third quarter. Some resolute defence, good fortune and All Black over-eagerness helped.

Williams was held short just after the break, Dagg shelled a pass as a promising raid built, a scrum was penalised for spearing in and a lineout drive fell to miscommunication.

Another wonderful piece of Williams' vision saw his grubber put Toeava into the clear, but somehow the finish did not arrive.

Then Williams tried to smash through three defenders when he had a man outside him and another chance was lost. The exasperation continued when Toeava had a try rubbed out on video-referee evidence.

The scoring lull lasted until a nifty piece of Kahui enterprise when he regathered his chip ahead and flipped an offload to the trailing Kaino for a canter to the line.

But Tonga were not done and, after a series of drives near the line, Taumalolo speared over to the delight of supporters in the crowd.

- NZ Herald

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