For the first time in my life I saw the All Blacks as others see them. Some basic truths soon emerged.
For a quick road trip from Auckland to Hamilton for the All Blacks-Tonga test, I joined Gabriel Price, whose wife is Dame Valerie Adams, and Gabriel's father, Joseph. We wore matching Mate Ma'a Tonga hoodies, and toted Tongan flags, one of which flew from the sun roof of the car.
While one sixteenth of my DNA is Māori, that's overwhelmed by the rest being freckled, ginger (now grey) haired, lilywhite Scottish and Northern Irish ancestry. So it was easy to understand the slightly bewildered look on a grizzled Hamiltonian when he looked at the three of us before the game and muttered, "Yeah, well, go the All Blacks, but good luck to you guys."
Here are eight talking points that struck me sitting in the crowd as a palagi with two good Tongan friends. They're proud New Zealanders, but are also passionate about Tonga, so it was easy to feel the pain when just before halftime Joseph quietly noted, "It's a point a minute. I just want to see Tonga score one try."
DAMN THE ALL BLACKS ARE FAST
From the first stunning Sevu Reece try, it's clear this is an All Black squad that could light up what should be dry, hard fields in Japan. In the oft repeated words of former All Black and All Black selector Earle Kirton, "there's no substitute for gas in rugby" and there's gas to burn in the likes of Reece, George Bridge, Beauden Barrett, and Ardie Savea. The Tongan side had heart, and structure, and energy, but a break of half a step was all it took for the All Blacks to be dotting the ball down 50 or 60 metres down the field.
THAT YELLOW THING IN THE SKY WAS WELCOME
We all know the reason professional rugby is played at night, for television audiences, but daytime rugby, when it's played well, is a joy to behold at the ground. The dazzling attacking moves that led to, for example, the first George Bridge try in the 27th minute, were almost breathtaking. Will they work in Japan against an opposing side constantly pressing the offside line, or squeezing harder at the breakdowns? The giant northern hemisphere lumberers better hope not.
WELCOME BACK, WELCOME BACK, WELCOME BACK
Whatever the All Black coaching staff said before the test to Ben Smith, or Bender, or Ben from accounts, long may they keep saying it. The daring, confident, Smith we saw in Hamilton was the man who for years has inspired all skinny looking footy players to believe they don't need to be Greek gods to be champions. The backfield, which when Smith and Rieko Ioane were battling with form a few weeks ago felt like a problem, now looks as strong as it was in 2015.
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UNSUNG HEROES ARE IMPORTANT TOO
People who know Patrick Tuipulotu swear it wasn't always in his nature to be aggressive. Herald columnist Simon Wilson coached him when Tuipulotu was 12 and wrote "You could see the kid had reservations about pain – receiving it and inflicting it." At 26 Tuipulotu off the field is apparently still "the tall boy everyone liked" that Wilson remembered from 14 years ago, but he's now a rock in the middle of the All Black pack. In Hamilton he led the tackle count, on 12, with Savea, and some of Tuipulotu's tackles were on a bone jarring, teeth rattling, Jerome Kaino level.
THERE'S STILL MORE THAN ARMS UP STEVE HANSEN'S SLEEVES
Kieran Read, looking more and more dynamic with each passing week, packed at No 8 in Hamilton, although the opportunity was always there for him to swap with Savea at No 6. Does this mean the Savea at the back of the scrum experiment is over? Don't expect Hansen and Co. to open up to the world about it, but it'd be surprising if at some point in Japan that Savea wasn't rocket launched off the back.
GIVE THAT MAN A ROUND OF APPLAUSE
Imagine you're Siua Maile, a 22-year-old roofer, and Shirley club player, from Christchurch, playing in your debut first class game, and that game's a test against the All Blacks. Three minutes into the match a ball boy hands you the ball, and you're about to throw into the first lineout of the game, with people like Sam Whitelock and Joe Moody glaring down the line at you. If you're Maile you don't choke, but instead lob a perfect throw which is taken by Leva Fifata. I'd call it one of the bravest moments of the game.
PLEASE LET ALL THE REFS AT THE WORLD CUP BE AS SENSIBLE
Watching Jordie Barrett collide with Sevu Reece, and then stumble into a leaping James Faiva, who landed from a great height on his upper back and neck, was sickening, and looked live to have the potential for a red card. Thankfully ref Angus Gardner kept his cool, and, after examining replays, saw it for the weird accident it actually was. Would you feel as confident of such level headed behaviour if one of our friends from France was officiating?
MISTAKES IN EUROPE COST PASIFIKA TEAMS
On the drive back from Hamilton Gabriel and Joseph and I talked at length about the fact that while, for example, the Tongan league team can play all their best players at a world tournament and be hugely competitive, it was revealed before the Rugby World Cup that 12 of the best Tongan players were not released by their European clubs for the Cup.
When professional rugby began 23 years ago there were national unions like England and France who didn't seize control, as New Zealand did, of players' contracts. In the north they were happy to let multi-millionaire club owners foot the playing bill. It's a bitter result now that World Rugby has no power, and, you fear, not much will anyway, to force clubs to do the right thing every four years and let Pasifika players represent their country at a World Cup. Not only are Tongan, Samoan and Fijian supporters poorly served as a result, but so is rugby itself.
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