They say the hallmark of a good team is when they win without playing well, and New Zealand triumphed in this one by some margin despite this uncharacteristically sloppy showing.
Playing a loose brand of rugby for large swathes of the game, as well as giving away several penalties in the first half, the All Blacks eventually forced themselves to seven tries. Tonga, meanwhile, played an exciting brand of rugby, stringing offloads together and giving the crowd in Newcastle something to shout about. They may not have gotten anywhere near in the end, running out of steam in the second half, but there’s was crowd-pleasing brand of swing-for-the-fences rugby.
New Zealand never panicked, got their reward and head into the World Cup quarter-finals unbeaten and in need of a sterner Test.
All Blacks squad – New Zealand had no problem rotating players. They’ve used all 31 of their squad so far in this World Cup and they weren’t afraid to ring the changes in-game. Tony Woodcock scored, but struggled in the scrum so left minutes into the second half. Beauden Barrett came into the back three and shifted everyone around, pushing Ben Smith to the wing. They calmly mixed it up.
Double-barrelled in every sense – Nehe Milner-Skudder created tries for Ben Smith and Ma’a Nonu with slick hands and went on to score two tries himself. He looked sharp, bright-eyed and eager to work. It is clear the Hurricane has banished any thoughts of his disappointing opening showing against Argentina.
Fourth but not forgotten – Tonga will have to go through the pain of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup in Japan after finishing fourth in this Pool, but they have no cause to be ashamed. Their loss to Georgia in the opener was an early highlight in a great tournament. Their win over Namibia kept the dream of a quarter alive, and their losses to Argentina and New Zealand were hard fought and in no way a walkover (despite the scorelines). Thanks, Tonga.
A dance-off – Before this one kicked off, Tonga did their Sipi Tau at the same time as the haka. For any neutral in the ground it was a real treat and something likely to fly around the internet as a Vine for weeks to come.
Kiwi scrum – Tonga pummelled the All Blacks in the set play, winning penalties and buckling opposition loosehead Tony Woodcock. Tonga perhaps should have had a penalty try at the end of the first half. And in the second changes were needed in the All Blacks ranks.
The turf – What a shame Scotland and Samoa have to play their vitally important game less than 24 hours after New Zealand and Tonga tore up the St James’ pitch. The head groundsman must have been weeping after 40 minutes.
Pitch invaders – We had a drunk bloke on the field. Again. When he got smashed by stewards a cheer went up, but what’s the point?
100 – The number of Test caps Ma’a Nonu has now collected.
144 – The number of tackles the All Blacks made, 39 more than Tonga.
9 – The number of turnovers Tonga won.
New Zealand: B Smith; N Milner-Skudder, C Smith (SB Williams 61), M Nonu, W Naholo (B Barrett 57); D Carter, A Smith (T Kerr-Barlow 72); T Woodcock (W Crockett 43), D Coles (K Mealamu 67), O Franks (B Franks 61), L Romano (B Retallick 51), S Whitelock (L Messam 66), J Kaino, S Cane, K Read.
Tries (7): B Smith, Woodcock, Milner-Skudder 2, Williams, Cane, Nonu. Cons: Carter 6
Yellow card: K Read
Tonga: V Lilo; T Veainu (W Helu 66), S Piutau, L Fosita, F Vainikolo; K Morath (V Tahitu’a 64), S Takulua (S Fisilau 69); S Tonga’uiha (S Taumalolo 55), E Taione (E Ngauamo 49), H ‘Aulika (S Puafisa 70), L Lokotui, J Tuineau (S Mafi 54), S Kalamafoni, N Latu, V Ma’afu (J Ram 66).
Pens: Morath 3
Yellow card: P Ngauamo
Referee: John Lacey (Ire)
Man of the Match: Nehe Milner-Skudder
Attendance: 50, 985