Second-string All Blacks teach Italians a lesson
AFTER the random of events of Chicago no one was expecting another upset in Rome, and yet there kind of was with the margin of victory clocked up by the All Blacks, who cruised to a 68-10 win.
There was never any doubt they would win, but the ease with which they did and the quality of rugby they produced was better than they had any right to expect. This was as young and inexperienced an All Blacks side as has been fielded in the past decade. Maybe longer.
More than half the team was 25 or younger and they had pretty much been thrown together this week and told to back themselves.
Which they did. They really did and everything came together surprisingly well. The All Blacks barely made an unforced error and they flowed.
Sam Cane led them with a direct purpose and fellow forwards Patrick Tuipulotu, Steven Luatua and Elliot Dixon delivered the confrontational style they had been asked to.
Charlie Faumuina's hands were back and Aaron Cruden directed a backline in which Anton Leinert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa combined well, and Israel Dagg run as strongly as he did in his prime.
Italy was blown away, which was strange, because it goes okay in the Six Nations. It doesn't win often, but it usually hangs in there for a while, causes a few problems and makes a game of it. Which opens two working theories. It was either horribly out of sorts in Rome, or the All Blacks, shorn of most of their regular starters, have a fairly handy second team in the making.
There's probably a bit of both ringing true but more so that latter point about the young All Blacks being full of potential.
They certainly didn't lack confidence and, above all else, that was the quality that defined their performance. Whereas Italy was stilted, always falling back into the pocket to kick possession away, the All Blacks saw opportunity everywhere they looked.
In the first few minutes a simple but neat piece of handling and timing saw Malakai Fekitoa put through a big hole under the posts and the All Blacks grew in confidence from there.
The ease with which they scored let the All Blacks know they were playing a side that didn't have much in the way of energy, drive or urgency, and there was nothing to fear. The harder challenge for the All Blacks was going to be keeping their structure and discipline in the sense that they didn't resort to playing fast and loose without observing the need to win the physical battle, too.
That they held their shape so well was to their considerable credit. They also kept their set piece well oiled and their defensive line was effective on the few occasions it was called into action.
What that confidence meant was that the All Blacks' first instinct was to run, the second was to pass and the continuity game that was painfully absent in Chicago in the 40-29 loss to Ireland last week made a welcome return. And when the All Blacks run into space and offload, they become a different team.
Their physicality can intimidate teams, so too their reputation, but really what scared the Italians was the All Blacks' basic skills.
They start to look unstoppable when the ball keeps emerging from the contact and the next runner takes it on.
Italy would chase the All Blacks out to one touchline and think they had shut down the threat only for the ball to stay in play and be shifted back. On and on it would go until there were no defenders left, only an All Blacks' ball carrier and a phalanx of support runners.