Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Sonny Bill's tricks on show at World Cup

All Black lock Ali Williams is airborne in the tackle against Tonga at Eden Park last night. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Black lock Ali Williams is airborne in the tackle against Tonga at Eden Park last night. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The Tongans were impossible to miss in the streets of Auckland but they didn't turn up for the opening World Cup match at Eden Park.

There was no sea of red inside the ground and their team parted like the Red Sea when the All Blacks spread the ball wide.

After a stirring opening ceremony, the match itself fell flat so quickly that we got the first Mexican Wave of the tournament at the 24-minute mark.

The emotional welcome for the Tongans may have taken a toll. They left their best work at the airport, Hunters Corner and Gribblehurst Park. An old pack and out-matched backs couldn't find any matches to light the fire until a late rally.

And they were well beaten by Sonny Ball. As soon as Sonny Bill Williams pulled out a few tricks, the gates opened.

Wayne Shelford, the legendary All Black No 8, had urged the New Zealand pack to take Tonga on up front, in order to harden themselves for the battles ahead.

But the All Blacks spread the ball touchline-to-touchline from the outset and Tonga couldn't cope.

The game turned into a show, like the opening ceremony but without the cute kid. And when the likes of Israel Dagg joined in with the Sonny Ball tricks, Tonga were in deep trouble.

In such a big stadium, and with nothing for their thinly spread fans to latch on to, the Tongan players could not find anything to stoke the fires with. They looked a touch bewildered behind their goal line, waiting for conversions, and will be very disappointed today, although they did show some desperate defence in the second half.

The All Blacks should be content although not delighted. Samoa's victory over Australia is still reasonably fresh in the memory and shows how the Pacific Island teams have to be respected. The All Blacks put Tonga away easily, but not ruthlessly.

Shelford had urged them to send a message to the other contenders by ripping Tonga's heart out, but they only gave them a decent black eye instead.

And not all the All Blacks thrived. Cakewalks aren't really Jimmy Cowan's thing. He needs a battle, with desperate rearguard actions to fight. Lobbing the ball over the top doesn't float anyone's boat when there is a drubbing going on. He contributed a couple of ugly kicks that would hit the headlines in a big game. Dan Carter's goalkicking continues to baffle.

With the result well beyond question, the crowd found its voice when Piri Weepu came on for Cowan, and even more so when Sonny Bill changed his jersey.

That's the sort of night it was, an exhibition of sorts, as was the very first World Cup game at the same ground 24 years ago.

The All Blacks will breathe a sigh of relief, having got their initial duties out of the way and a win under the belt.

So we will have to look elsewhere for a World Cup fairytale, beyond the excellent opening ceremony.

The tournament needs an upset to bring it to life. Hopefully the island teams will come up with something, but last night's match was further evidence that more needs to be done to lift their performance and profile.

They have so much to offer rugby, but are struggling to get past World Cup cameo status.

- NZ Herald

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