New Zealand found itself in an interesting position heading into this game. The ABs had taken big losses against both South Africa and France (losing its first ever pool match in the process) and while it had put Namibia away well, there were still questions of the playing and coaching group. Some people were even asking (dreaming) if New Zealand was going to follow Australia and not get out of their pool. After all, Italy had beaten Wales in 2022 and only lost to a full strength French team 24 – 29 earlier this year. Even in New Zealand some NZRFU hating trolls were telling people how much of a threat Italy would be and how they could actually win this match. So today was a chance for the ABs to demonstrate that they did have the skills, hunger and ability to put a good game together, and boy did they demonstrate it. Scoring 14 tries to 2 in a 96-17 victory over Italy in Lyon the ABs demonstrated just how lethal they can be when they get it right. It wasn’t a perfect game by any means and being so far ahead they did switch off a bit at the end. However, it’s hard to find fault when you win by this much.
The game started with Italy kicking off and then defending very strongly. To be fair to Italy, although the score spun out, individually they played well with some good individual defence and some great individual running. It’s just that if they made a mistake, and the pressure from NZ caused a few, then the ABs pounced. The ability of the ABs to transition from defence to attack with incredible speed was something that Italy just couldn’t handle. Any time they made a mistake it seemed the next minute the ball was down the other end of the field with Italy hard on defence. The Italians never stopped trying throughout the game, but the effort took its toll and gaps started appearing that the ABs exploited. By half time the score was 49 – 3 and while Italy scored 2 tries in the second half through Ange Capuozzo and Montanna Ioane, they were never really in this game.
The All Blacks set a few markers in this game. Their discipline was good with only 1 penalty in the first 36 minutes of the match. The also cut down their error rate and were clinical in holding onto the ball until an opportunity presented itself before letting rip. There were no 50/50 passes and with a good kick chasing game, the Italians found themselves under a lot of pressure. Both Mo’unga and Barrett kicked well tactically and Mo’unga only missed one kick from 10 with McKenzie scoring a further 4 off the tee when he came on.
Lineout variation was very good and it seemed like they had a play for almost every one they had. While there were two great maul drives that created tries, the variation off the line out was something that the Italians struggled with and led to at least 4 of their 13 tries. Both Cody Taylor and Dane Coles were accurate in their throws and both Frizell, and later Barrett, at 6 made some fantastic catches. They were also very disciplined at the ruck with contest and cleanouts accurate and timely. No silly stuff to open the door for cards and a clinical precision that Italy couldn’t counter.
In addition when the reserves came on they managed to keep the momentum going with all players stepping up and continuing the good work. The defence was great all night with Italy not being able to create space and their elusive wings getting caught behind the gain line time after time.
The Game Changer
To be fair there wasn’t a single game changer. Maybe it was whatever the ABs did at training in their week off, but the game started and finished in the same way. The cynic in me says the game changer was Italy kicking off.
The Man of the Match/Standout Players
Quite a hard one this. With Aaron Smith getting a hat trick, Cody Taylor being immense all over the field and so many like Frizell stepping up it is hard to pick one. However for me, the man who led from the front, scored two tries himself and was an absolute beast in defence, the MOTM goes to Ardie Savea.
For Italy, I thought Lorenzo Cannone was very good. He made some great tackles and took the ball up hard all night. Both Montanna Ioane and Ange Capuozzo were good taking their chances and scoring some good tries.
This game certainly put a mark in the sand for New Zealand. While they’ve struggled at times since Foster took over, at their best they are very hard to play against. The players have some great individual skills and the ability to transition from defence into attack so fast is something that sets them aside. I like that they countered the ruck ball as when you don’t counter the ruck, you give control to the opposition, but countering it and putting them under pressure keeps you in control.
Personally, I still absolutely believe this team can go all the way and win this cup. They certainly have the players, and if they manage to keep the game at a high tempo, maintain their disciple, contest the ball to stop giving the initiative to the opposition and use the ball they get then I think they’ll be very hard to stop.