With the best will in the world Manu Samoa on their first run out are not the sternest opposition the All Blacks will face this year. They are probably not of the quality of the New Zealand Super Rugby sides at this of this year, remembering the Super Rugby teams are near the end of their season and used to playing together while the Samoans are just coming together.
However, the All Blacks were using this knock the rust off and bed in new combinations as well and for much of the first half it showed. The gulf in quality was still present - I think all of the Samoan players play in top flight rugby somewhere (France, Britain or Super Rugby) but the All Blacks are the best of the best and it showed, even when they weren’t playing well they were just better. This helped the scoreline at the end of the first half be a rather daunting four tries and 28 points to zero.
Towards the end of the first half and through the second half all the combinations started to work much better. Both Sonny Bill Williams and Anton Lienert-Brown are quality players in the midfield (centres to those of us from up North, second five-eighth and centre to the Kiwis) but because SBW was away for the Olympics and then injured last year, while Lienert-Brown was first capped last year this was the first time they’ve played together. However, by the end of the match you wouldn’t know they weren’t playing their 50th match together which will be good come next week. Likewise, in the absence of the nearly recovered Read, Ardie Savea played at 8 and while Hansen (who is a far better judge of these things than me) isn’t convinced he’s a natural 8 I didn’t see him put a foot wrong.
The Lions defence next week will be superior to the Samoan’s defence this week, so the fact that the All Blacks ran in 12 tries (yes 12, and the try at the end that I think was incorrectly chalked off for a knock on only makes up for the knock on that I think the referee missed in the first half). However, the fact that the All Blacks created 14 try-scoring opportunities, had one called back for a dubious knock on and blew one with an off-load that a lock should have but didn’t catch. Those opportunities were created from first phase, from phase play, from turnovers and from kicks from Samoa - in other words from each and every possible form of attack or defence into attack. They were scored out wide or through the middle. Given my on-going comments about the Lions repeated failures to create try scoring opportunities and to convert those few opportunities they do create are only going to be escalated against the superior defence of the All Blacks, who didn’t give up any points against Samoa and had started to look like their normal, well-drilled machine defensively but also looked like their high-scoring offensive machine.
Steve Hansen might not have smiled but he will be happy, certainly by the second half everyone was playing well, the whole team looked like they were playing All Blacks’ rugby and the substitutes came on and added pace, power and skill at the right time. Just as importantly no one picked up an injury.
Equally importantly, anyone who might have wondered if Warren Gatland might have had something, saying the Super Rugby sides were close to the All Blacks has had a reminder of just what a step up in class they really are.
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