Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks come back to beat Wales in 2016 opener

All Blacks 39 Wales 21
New Zealand All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo in action against Wales during the 1st test match between the All Blacks and Wales. Photo / Nick Reed.
New Zealand All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo in action against Wales during the 1st test match between the All Blacks and Wales. Photo / Nick Reed.

It's business as usual for the All Blacks. A hat-full of legends have gone, a hat-full are probably going to be shortly made.

That's how it is with this side. They don't skip a beat and, after a nervous-looking first half against a sprightly and adventurous Wales, the All Blacks finally found their rhythm and confidence, screwed the nut and looked every inch like they did for the last four years.

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The patience that was such a key part of their game last year has been retained.

They had to dig in to get the job done. They were under pressure for long periods in the first half and there was a period when they looked decidedly shaky.

But there was no panic. They found the solutions to their mounting problems and held their nerve.

New Zealand All Blacks Waisake Naholo in action during the first test match against Wales at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday night. Photo / Nick Reed
New Zealand All Blacks Waisake Naholo in action during the first test match against Wales at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday night. Photo / Nick Reed

They worked their way back into the game and, as the final quarter arrived, and the respective benches infiltrated, the All Blacks went up a gear. As the space began to open, the All Blacks played more rugby at a greater pace and Wales, who had been a genuine chance of winning, were suddenly chasing shadows and spending a bit of time with hands on knees, rib cages squeezing out what air they could find.

That's been a classic All Blacks formula of the past and most definitely hasn't been lost, especially when they can introduce Ardie Savea and Beauden Barrett from the bench and change everything.

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It will have irked the All Blacks more than troubled them that they didn't get the scoreboard to reflect their last-quarter dominance. They owned Wales at that late stage but there was a bit of looseness in their last pass and a bit of bad luck when a pass that was definitely not forward by World Rugby's stupid definition of the hands going backwards, was deemed a forward pass.

The bigger issue on the fix-it list will be the defence. It's been a while since an All Blacks side has been so easily and regularly shredded and Wales, while they moved the ball well and have a good array of runners and decision-makers, will have been a little perplexed at how easily they were creating and finding space in the first half.

The wider Wales went, the more success they enjoyed and this was always the worry - that the new midfield would be defensively vulnerable. The fear wasn't that Wales would pour through the middle of the midfield, it was the total cohesion and structure of the defensive line would take time to build and gel.

And so it proved. Waisake Naholo got caught ball watching for the first try - heading in when he should have been shuffling out - and there were a couple of times when Wales were able to blast into space close to the ruck.

Welsh Flanker Ross Moriarty is pushed out of play during the first test match against the New Zealand All Blacks at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday night. Photo / Nick Reed.
Welsh Flanker Ross Moriarty is pushed out of play during the first test match against the New Zealand All Blacks at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday night. Photo / Nick Reed.

But the picture was complicated by the drastic number of one-on-one tackles missed. The guilt on that front fell across the team.

The second priority will be to improve the accuracy of the aerial game, particularly dealing with high kicks.

The All Blacks are all about the triple threat they pose and their kicking game - and their chasing - has been a huge strength since 2009. They have been the masters at turning loose kicks into counter attack and also winning back their own ball.

But they put themselves under pressure with some of their work tonight - too many high kicks were spilled or left to bounce and Wales felt they were going to get lucky by hoofing high, most probably because they usually did.

On the flip-side, when Ben Smith leapt high to take a slightly over-hit bomb, he was suddenly carving through the middle and two passes later, Waisake Naholo was coasting under the posts.

First tests are never going to deliver the sort of performance everyone is after. They are about trying to bed down some kind of basic game plan and flow. And they are about winning. That much the All Blacks did and they will head to Wellington now with a clear idea about what they need to do to be better.

New Zealand 39 (W. Naholo 2, J. Savea, K. Read, N. Harris tries; A. Cruden 2 pens, 4 cons) Wales 21 (T. Faletau, R. Webb tries; D. Biggar 3 pens, con). Halftime: 15-18

- NZ Herald

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