After a couple of weeks off, New Zealand played their last Test before attempting to win their third consecutive Rugby World Cup. Facing off against Tonga in Waikato, the All Blacks fielded a strong lineup that put their opponents to the sword, scoring 14 tries through 9 different scorers, while Beauden Barrett and debutant Josh Ioane added 14 and 8 points with the boot respectively. Tonga did get a consolation try in the final minutes through captain Siale Piutau, with Tane Takulua kicking the conversion for a 92-7 final score.
Having just gone 92-0 up with about 15 minutes left, New Zealand made an interesting decision to remove Ryan Crotty but not bring anyone on in his place, instead finishing the match with 14 men. Speaking after the game, Steve Hansen explained that part of the reason was as they did not want to risk Crotty any further as he returned from injury, while it was also a chance to put themselves under pressure and replicate going a man down in a match situation.
Personally, I don’t know if I believe that not wanting to risk Crotty for the full 80 was really part of the thinking, as if this was the case then they would have removed him rather than Ben Smith or Beauden Barrett. I think that they were always planning to use this as a chance to test themselves a man down.
Part of me likes the thinking here. Going a man down in a big match can be a killer and no training will really replicate a matchday situation. However, they did not really react to the situation, continuing to play a high-tempo game with quick-tap penalties rather than slowing everything down as they usually would to use up the 10 minutes. It was telling that they started to give away a number of penalties after going down a man and eventually conceded in this period despite barely being troubled in the first 70 minutes.
The thing that doesn’t sit quite right to me though is that I can’t help but feel that (intentional or not) it was a little disrespectful to do this against Tonga in a capped Test. I definitely feel that there is a place for this sort of situational practice in a match, but I don’t know if that should be happening in a capped Test. I would rather see an uncapped match in the build-up to a tournament where teams announce ahead of time that they will be running situations like being a man down, that way it does not feel like the Test or the opponent is being disregarded.
As someone who does not get to watch Tonga play very often, this match was disappointing. With Sevu Reece, Ben Smith and Codie Taylor all scoring in the first quarter, the game was already over as a competition.
Watching the game, Tonga didn’t really do anything horrible. They had 48% possession and 51% territory, while New Zealand actually attempted 3 tackles more than Tonga. What proved the difference was the Tonga defence. It set itself up very narrow to avoid being broken through the middle, but that just let the All Blacks play it wide and get around them that way, while turnovers proved costly. What it came down to was that the Tongan defence were unable to deal with the might and skill of the All Blacks once their front-up defence was left chasing.
Tonga have the misfortune of being in an strong World Cup Pool, hopefully they can do some work on their defence over the next couple of weeks to deal with the opposition once they get past the initial defensive line.
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