The All Blacks have their 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign underway with a win in the tournament opener against Tonga, with a scoreline of 41-10. The win was far from what the All Blacks were looking for, while Tonga can hold their heads high after a very competitive second half.
But it was in the first half that the damage was done, as the All Blacks racked up 29 points, including four tries courtesy of Israel Dagg and Richard Kahui who crossed for two each. At this point it seemed to be headed for a large margin as was predicted.
No one told Tonga this though. They came out a rejuvenated side and defended stoically, holding the All Blacks scoreless for 15 minutes before Jerome Kaino crossed after a chip and chase from Richard Kahui.
The next 15 minutes were all Tonga. They played a tight game which saw their forwards dominate, keeping the ball close and never going any wider than one off. Never did they panic, always waiting for support and staying patient right up until Sona Taumalolo crashed over in the 70th minute. It was a well-deserved, well-worked try that showed that Tonga can indeed play and aren't just there to make up the numbers.
A late try to Ma'a Nonu saw the All Blacks extend the final score to 41-10, but Tonga can hold their heads high, keeping the second-half score to just 12-7, something many of the top teams in the world have been unable to do in recent years.
For the All Blacks it was a case of inaccuracy and sloppy errors creeping into their play that stopped them from running away with the game. The back line, which started off looking so polished, became less effective as the game went on. They were starved of possession for most of the second half, but even then they were inaccurate when they did get their chances.
The forward packs were relatively evenly matched, with the Tongan pack offering plenty of physicality as was predicted. They came at the All Blacks hard and showed in the second half that they will prove a hard matchup for anyone.
Jerome Kaino was the best player on the park, leading the way with some brutal hits on defence and some barnstorming runs on attack. The importance of his absence from the test against Australia two weeks ago became even more apparent, as he showed once again that he has been the best-performing forward for the All Blacks this year.
Sonny Bill Williams had one of his best games in a black jersey, throwing some magnificent passes while also taking good options. He showed glimpses of his insecurities, particularly in contact, but these were far fewer than has been previously seen. The question now remains whether he will be able to show this form against the top teams to push for inclusion in the 22 in the big matches.
The back three of Israel Dagg, Richard Kahui and Isaia Toeava operated well together, looking threatening with ball in hand. Kahui has really put his hand up in the past few weeks and must be pushing for a spot in the 22 in the top team. Dagg did nothing to hurt his chances in his battle with Mils Muliaina for the starting fullback jersey.
For Tonga, Taniela Moa had a good game at halfback and later first five-eighth, directing play well and looking dangerous on the occasions when he did run. Sona Taumalolo was the best of the forwards, being introduced in the second half and making a huge impact with the strong pick and go which has become a feature of his game.
A slow start and moments of panic in the first 20 minutes cost Tonga what could have been a competitive game. Certainly their forwards weren't disgraced, and it wouldn't be a stretch at all to say that they will give some of the top teams a good game. An upset over France wouldn't be out of the question.
The All Blacks will now look ahead to their game against Japan next Friday night, where they will look to become more clinical in their play ahead of a tougher opponent in France the following week. Tonga have a shorter turnaround, taking on Canada on Wednesday night in a game they will take huge amounts of confidence into.
The tournament continues tomorrow with Scotland taking on Romania, France playing Japan, Fiji against Namibia and the big match of the weekend, England vs Argentina.