Nehe Milner-Skudder scored a brace of tries as the All Blacks wore down a tenacious Tongan side to clinch a 47-9 win at St James’ Park on Friday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
As expected, the Kiwis recorded their fourth win of the tournament to secure their position at the top of Pool C, while Tonga suffered a third defeat and will have to settle for a disappointing fourth-place finish in the group.
Nevertheless, Tonga did leave some of their best for last, competing strongly for the better part of the first hour, but ultimately the New Zealanders’ superior class reigned.
The All Blacks have yet to really produce a complete performance at this tournament, and again they didn’t have it all their own way at the start of the clash in Newcastle.
Uncharacteristic errors hindered their efforts against Georgia last weekend, and this time around it was handling errors, ill-discipline and four scrum penalties that hampered their cause in the first half against Tonga.
Optimists will suggest the All Blacks are building towards their best form and are likely to peak during the play-offs, but there are those who will point out that the world champs have not entirely exuded that aura of invincibility.
The final scoreline might hint at a completely one-sided affair, but although the All Blacks finished with typical ferocity, they were mighty fortunate to even hold an 11-point half-time lead.
Five tries during a far better second-half performance inflated the score, and to be fair, it was ultimately a case of job well done.
The All Blacks opened the scoring in the 13th minute when some deft handling enabled fullback Ben Smith to dart through the defence for the opening try, although Tonga flyhalf Kurt Morath would draw three points back not long after.
In what then epitomised the All Blacks’ out-of-sorts first-half performance, winger Waisake Naholo butchered a try just before the half-hour mark, dropping the ball cold with an overlap looming.
However, prop Tony Woodcock would make up for it when he barged over next to the posts after an extended period of pressure, enabling the reigning champs to open up a 14-3 lead.
Another significant moment came just before half-time when Tonga failed to score despite launching a tryline onslaught after All Blacks skipper Kieran Read had been sent to the sin bin for a cynical breakdown offence.
Tonga would eventually reap some reward during their time with a one-man advantage as they took play through 19 phases and eventually won a penalty that Morath knocked over in the 49th minute.
However, that simply seemed to set alight the All Blacks, and they duly produced a similarly impressive period of build-up play before Milner-Skudder was put away in the corner.
Finally the All Blacks had some breathing room with a 15-point lead, and while Morath would slot a 57th-minute penalty, that man Milner-Skudder pounced again almost immediately after to score the bonus-point try.
Replacement Sonny Bill Williams then ghosted over under the posts as Tonga’s resolve started to wane, while the All Blacks finally began to turn on the style to make the scoreline look a bit more flattering.
Tongan replacement Paula Ngauamo then received a yellow card for a tip tackle on Dan Carter, with flanker Sam Cane scoring almost immediately after, while Ma'a Nonu also went over late in the game to finish off a dominant second stanza.
All Blacks – Tries: Ben Smith, Tony Woodcock, Nehe Milner-Skudder (2), Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Cane, Ma'a Nonu. Conversions: Dan Carter (6).
Tonga – Penalties: Kurt Morath (3).
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romana, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Tonga – 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 Telusa Veainu, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Latiume Fosita, 11 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 10 Kurt Morath, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Viliami Ma’afu, 7 Nili Latu (c), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Joseph Tuineau, 4 Tukulua Lokotui, 3 Halani ‘Aulika, 2 Elvis Taione, 1 Soane Tonga’uiha.
Subs: 16 Paula Ngauamo, 17 Sona Taumalolo, 18 Sila Puafisi, 19 Sitiveni Mafi, 20 Jack Ram, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Viliami Tahitua, 23 Will Helu.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images