AUCKLAND, NZ – The All Blacks finally made it to Apia after years of putting it off and were almost undone by a home side that arrived 40 minutes late to their own party. If it wasn’t for Manu’s extremely poor first half and a timely return to form by a legendary All Black, NZ Rugby might’ve been regretting this goodwill mission to the islands.
A bit of backstory is essential to this one-off test, with it’s Wednesday afternoon kick-off just one of the unique features. You see, despite the extremely large Polynesian population in New Zealand and it’s undeniable contribution to rugby in this country, the All Blacks had never played in Samoa or Tonga. They also haven’t been to Fiji (part of Melanesia) in decades. Only a year ago NZR boss Steve Tew said that playing in the islands ‘wasn’t in the best interests’. However, after an outrageous amount of public pressure (due mostly to one local current affairs host), NZR had to do an embarrassing U-turn and squeeze this fixture in, hence the odd midweek timing. Throw in the fact that the Super Rugby final was only a few days ago and suddenly you’ve got an All Black team without any Hurricanes or Highlanders, potentially making this the first time ever one was picked with players left out to concentrate on their club duties. So there’s four debutants to fill some of the empty spaces (Brad Weber, Charlie Ngatai, Nepo Laulala and George Moala) plus a recall for Andy Ellis, who was last in an All Black jersey when he got the final touch in the 2011 World Cup final.
At Apia Park: All Blacks 25 (George Moala try, Dan Carter 6 pen, con) Manu Samoa 16 (Alafoti Faosiliva try, Tusi Pisi 3 pen, con)
So what’d we get after all that anticipation and drama? A pretty garbage game of rugby between an All Black team rustier than the wreck of the Titanic and a Manu side too scared to do anything other than tackle for the first hour. It started flat, both sides hoisting bombs, dropping them, giving away scrum penalties and inviting Dan Carter to practice his goal kicking. He knocked the All Blacks out to a 9-0 lead after the visitors dominated possession and territory. But, for all the ball and real estate they enjoyed, they couldn’t actually get anywhere near the home team’s line, aside from a botched line out drive. Tusi Pisi eventually answered for Manu Samoa with a penalty as both sides were guilty of being a little too eager with their rush defense. Carter pegged one back for the All Blacks and the sides headed into the shade with the score 12-3. Anyone watching back in NZ would’ve found it hard to stay awake, but the lively home crowd of over 8,000 were enjoying the historic occasion.
Anyone hoping that the second half would burst into life was sorely disappointed, the errors and penalties that made the first half so forgettable simply resumed. Nothing of note happened until Carter, who had been the one shining light for the All Blacks, cross kicked perfectly to land the ball in the hands of debutant George Moala. He had a bit of work to do after catching the kick on the 22, but mad sit to the try line under some heavy attention. This was a good change for Moala, who, up until that point, had spent the match getting smashed by Alesana Tuilagi. This try should’ve been the start of the All Blacks putting their foot on the throat of the home side, but it was Manu Samoa that cranked up the intensity as the game finally sparked into life. A series of raids and good passing breached the visitors up the middle and Alafoti Faosiliva found himself diving over next to the posts. It should’ve been set up for a grandstand finish with 10 to play, but Carter knocked over another penalty and the game unfortunately petered out the way it had started.
So what’d we learn? Not much about the All Blacks, this was a very much a one-off team for the occasion and bears little resemblance to the one that’ll take the field when The Rugby Championship starts. Besides, it was the first test of the year and even a full strength team would’ve struggled so soon after the Super Rugby season. Manu Samoa fielded a full-strength team and definitely deserved to get as close as they did, one can only wonder what might have happened if they’d actually played well in the first half. Hypothetically, it was all set up for a serious ambush but the home team got a serious case of stage-fright. They may never get another chance like this again as it’s unlikely that the All Blacks will show up with a weakened team and poor preparation.
The Manu forwards battled hard and more than matched their opposites, although their set piece was a bit shambolic at times. The very experienced back line, featuring names like Kahn Fotu’ali’i, Tusi Pisi and Tuilagi looked labored though, passes were dropped more often than not and there were an alarmingly high number of botched takes at the back. The main culprit for that last stat was none other than Tim Nanai-Williams, who will probably which all recordings of this game get locked in a vault until the end of the world. Everything the usually very reliable fullback did was a disaster, it will have to go down as one of the worst international performances of all time.
Man Of The Match: Much to the relief of All Black fans, Dan Carter had a great game. His kicking was great, both in the field and off the tee. His performance would be the sole highlight.
Replay Worthy? No.
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