NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, 9 Oct – So here we go again: New Zealand heading off to Cardiff for a Rugby World Cup quarter-final. It could even be against France, depending on the outcome of their Pool D encounter with Ireland on Sunday, which would make the last-eight tie at the Millennium Stadium a week from now a repeat of the Cardiff quarter-final eight years ago in which the All Black class of 2007 stunningly came to grief.
For the time being, Steve Hansen has reason to be satisfied that his charges are peaking with promising timing, having cast off some of the rust evident in their opening three matches and in the first 40 minutes of their final Pool C game against Tonga. In front of a sell-out 50,985 crowd at St James’ Park they sprinkled some All Black magic in the second 40 minutes of a contest that ended in a resounding 47-9 victory.
The World Cup holders ran in seven tries in all, five of them in a slick second-half performance that proved too much for the spirited Tongans, who were just 14-6 down at one point.
Fittingly, the last New Zealander to cross the whitewash was their veteran inside centre. On the night he became his country’s sixth cap centurion, Ma’a Nonu claimed his 30th try as an All Black, fed into the left corner in the 75th minute by the flying wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, who had already bagged two second-half tries of his own.
Nonu was chaired off the field by his team-mates at the final whistle and presented with his 100th cap by Richie McCaw, who was on waterboy duty for the night to avoid the risk of aggravating a minor hip problem.
“I was pretty stoked,” the 33-year-old centre said of his try-scoring contribution. “I was shouting for it really loudly and just grateful to Nehe that he passed. I just feel honoured and privileged that I’ve made it this far. Getting towards 100 caps looked like a long shot last year when I broke my arm.”
Hansen also paid tribute to his trusty number 12. “I was never good enough to play for the All Blacks,” New Zealand’s head coach said. “I’d give up everything I’ve done in coaching just to play in one game.
“Ma’a’s played 100. He’s probably one of the best second five-eighths (inside centre) our country has had. We’re very proud of him, and for him to score tonight was special.”
The other New Zealand tries came from Ben Smith, Tony Woodcock, Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Cane. Fly-half Dan Carter landed six of the conversions but the ultimately polished victory, which confirmed New Zealand as pool winners, did not come without cost.
Woodcock limped off with a hamstring injury in the opening stages of the second half and the loosehead prop looks like missing the rest of the tournament, possibly bringing an end to his All Black career.
“It was a bad tear,” Hansen said. “If this happens to be end of his time, it’ll be a sad way to finish because he’s been a great All Black and fully deserves to go out better than that.”
Stand-in captain Kieran Read was yellow-carded for collapsing a maul just before half-time and Tonga might have been awarded a penalty try after two further collapses but, having seen his side crank up through the gears after the interval, Hansen was more than satisfied with the final outcome.
“We’re really happy to have got through the pool stages,” he said. “We’ve given ourselves an opportunity to play some finals footy and whatever’s happened in the last month or so is irrelevant now. We turn our thoughts to the Millennium Stadium next weekend and I’m really excited about that.
“Credit to Tonga. We had to work hard in the first half. In the second half we played particularly well and built. We’ll have to build some more going forward but it’s definitely a good step for next week. It prepares us well for what’s coming next.”
What's next for Tonga, whose nine points came from the boot of fly-half Kurt Morath, is a flight home and the disappointment of missing out on the third-placed finish in the pool that would have guaranteed them a place in RWC 2019.
“I’m proud of the way the boys have finished the tournament,” Nili Latu, Tonga’s openside flanker and captain, said. “I could not have asked any more from my side.
“Our plan was to attack New Zealand and we believed we had the upper hand. We thought we controlled them but a quality team bounces back.”