All Blacks coach Ian Foster did his upmost to deflect attention from the horror scoreline his side put on a severely understrength Tongan side at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night.
After witnessing the All Blacks run in 16 tries – Will Jordan scoring five - to equal their record 102-0 margin against the proud Pacific Island nation set 21 years ago in Albany, Foster was forced on the defensive to explain the relevance of the first test of the year.
Restricted in their ability to field a competitive squad due to the Covid-19 climate and quarantine challenges in accessing their leading European players, Tonga fielded 13 debutants which included calling in players from the New Zealand club scene.
Toutai Kefu's side were never going to be any match for the All Blacks – and the final result could hardly have been uglier.
"There is no solution to that right now," Foster said of the challenges imposed by the global pandemic. "I'd be disappointed if that's what we're dwelling on. We weren't happy last year when we got no rugby and this year we've got some. Clearly the itinerary has put Tonga in a compromised position but they've been keen to play and they deserve a lot of credit for that.
"I'd like to think we're not just going to focus on the scoreline and say this was a game that shouldn't have happened because for the Tongan people it was an important game and it was equally important for us to start what could be a long year.
"In today's environment you take what you can get."
All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock had a degree of sympathy for the Tongan plight.
"It is tough. I know a few of the Tongan boys really well. I've played a lot of rugby with Nasi Manu," Whitelock said. "It's really good to see those guys out there but you'd love to see them have a longer build-up. If you have the ideal situation every team would have a couple of months together."
Asked what needed to be done to help make Tonga more competitive, Foster said: "Tonga's performances in World Cup years are very different. You've got a World Rugby calendar that makes it very tough for Tonga to prepare their No 1 team in years between that.
"This has been a tough year for them to get organised when you look at Covid, quarantine - it's impacted on a whole lot of things but let's not disrespect the fact that 23 Tongans represented their country and gave it everything they got."
From an All Blacks perspective Foster was adamant he will take plenty from the blowout. He praised his men for sticking to the task and was pleased with the collective shape and skill amid the ever-mounting scoreline.
"We can get a lot out of it because there were some areas we wanted to target. We wanted to drive our skill level early. Sometimes you can start to abandon that when the score goes up and get a bit too loose. I felt there were moments we started to get flat in our support and lost the advantage of the line breaks but after a while we readjusted and converted a lot of the opportunities we got and that took a lot of discipline so we get a pat on the back for that."
The All Blacks blooded four rookies – Chiefs second-five Quinn Tupaea started in the midfield while Crusaders loose forward Ethan Blackadder, prop George Bower and Blues halfback Finlay Christie came off the bench in the second half.
"The four guys who played their first tests should be pretty proud," Foster said.
Tongan coach Kefu revealed his side were originally scheduled to play the Māori All Blacks – only stepping up to meet Foster's men when Manu Samoa opted out.
"Originally we had the Māori but for some reason it didn't turn out that way," Kefu said. "We don't care, we'll take it and give it our best shot. It was disappointing we lost by that much but it will be memorable for the new players. We move on. It's a bad day at the office against the best team in the world.
"Considering the stuff that goes on in the background we did pretty well to get a team together – 13 new players so we're going to celebrate that. They're just too good for us, it's pretty simple. We don't get to play tier ones often so if we get the chance, we're going to have a crack.
"For us in any climate it's a challenge then you add Covid on top. In all the campaigns I've gone through our boys don't complain, they just get on with it."