All Blacks 42
The curse of inconsistency has struck again - the All Blacks failing to back up their solidity of last week with anything remotely similar in Rome this morning.
They won the game. Of course they did - the sun wouldn't have come up this morning if they hadn't. But they didn't nail the performance. The hammer bashed the thumb. Not once - but for 70 minutes. Much could be made of the vigour of the Italians, their desire to win the collisions and their ability to just about do so. They moved the ball well, got off the line quickly in defence and had structure, purpose and a bit of fun playing the underdog.
But that was kind of the point - they were the underdog because, really, there was a gulf in class between the teams all things being equal - that is, the All Blacks playing at or close to their potential - then it should have been a bit of a doddle: a 50-minute joust to break them down and then a 30-minute reward of showboating. Fat chance.
The All Blacks were all over the place - not literally, sadly it was metaphorical. They didn't find any rhythm or cohesion until the final 10 minutes when the Italians had run out of steam. The the tries flowed and gave a false impression of what had really happened.
The All Blacks were on the backfoot in the battle for the gainline and the basic skills didn't quite fall apart, but they did malfunction in a reasonably major way.
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The Italians used a rush defence - a suspiciously offside rush defence - to unsettle the All Blacks, to harry them, rush them and force them into quick decisions. That was a rich source of disruption as it led to some flustered work by the All Blacks around the ruck.
They couldn't get the fluidity and control they were after - couldn't get the go-forward, own the gainline or recycle quick ball. Those passages where the All Blacks were swarmed, wrapped up and forced to work hard to dig out slow ball - they built the frustration and frustration led to compounding errors.
It was a wonder the All Blacks got the job done in the end. They were never in control, never far enough ahead for the sloppiness to be a mild irritation: it was a source of serious concern as the Italians looked capable of scoring and the longer the game went on and they were still in it, the more they believed. And the more the crowd came into it and the more obvious the nerves in the All Blacks performance became.
That they did manage to do enough to sneak home was down to a few moments of composure and class.
The risk for the Italians was that the All Blacks could whisk the ball into the midfield and away from the traffic and out there they encountered a jagged defensive line. Aaron Cruden came to life when he found himself confronted with a line that had holes: he picked them plenty and he was the man who gave the All Blacks all their attacking thrust in the first half. He was the matador at the bullfight - so small, so vulnerable and yet so capable of teasing and taunting the dumb animals around him. When he jinked and probed, Italy were in trouble. It should have been more trouble but the handling wasn't sharp enough and nor was the support running quick enough.
But Conrad Smith was able to latch onto one Cruden break and then feed a rampaging Read who scored and a neat move from a set-play was enough to see Ma'a Nonu bash over early in the second and for Cory Jane to scamper through 10 minutes from time. It was enough - only just and the All Blacks travel to Cardiff now knowing they have to do more, much more.
Italy 10 (A. Sgarbi tries; L. Orquera con, pen, DG)
New Zealand 42 (K. Read, M. Nonu, C. Jane, J. Savea (2) tries; A. Cruden 4 cons, 3 pens)