TOKYO, 6 Oct - For three minutes, the Welwitschias were in dreamland as the scoreline read Namibia 3, New Zealand 0. After half an hour, these long-odds underdogs were still skipping through their fantasy world at Tokyo Stadium, within one point of the world champions.
Of course, it could never last - and it didn’t.
The champions gradually shook off a slovenly opening to tilt the rugby world back onto its axis and run out 71-9 winners with 11 tries, a result that puts them firmly in control of pool B and homing in on a quarter-final spot.
They may have had two props, Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi, sent to the sin-bin, yet it still did not stop them scoring four tries with just 14 men.
Two tries apiece for Player of the Match Anton Lienert-Brown, Ben Smith and Sevu Reece as well other scores from Angus Ta’avao, Joe Moody, captain Sam Whitelock, fly-half-for-a-day Jordie Barrett and TJ Perenara gave the scoreline a familiar All Black gloss.
Some of the New Zealand fare near the end was pure champagne, the ball being whipped around like a basketball and a final crowning try that saw one quicksilver scrum-half Brad Weber put another, Perenara, away for an acrobatic diving score in the left-hand corner with the most preposterous behind-the-back pass.
It was so brilliant that it even had the Namibia coach Phil Davies out of his seat and his normally calm and collected All Blacks’ counterpart Steve Hansen offering a roar and a fist-pump.
It rounded off a more than satisfactory week’s work for Hansen having seen two very different-looking New Zealand sides rattle up a total of 134 points against Canada (63) and Namibia (71), the two biggest totals of the tournament. Ever the perfectionist, though, he was unhappy that they "didn't turn up with the right attitude" and, according to the players, he gave them a much-needed rocket at half-time.
Namiba captain Johan Deysel described his side’s first-half resistance as "boring rugby'' designed to stifle the champions, whereas the All Blacks’ final flourish was all razzle-dazzle. Yet for all that, Namibia could not be outshone.
This unsung band of amateurs and no-name journeymen from the African nation, which has still to win a World Cup match in 22 attempts, offered splendid resistance for half an hour and were still desperately pushing towards the New Zealand line in the dying moments, looking for the score that not one of the capacity crowd of 48,354 would have begrudged them.
"We knew we were playing against the best team in the competition but we gave it all we could. I couldn't ask any more of our players," said Davies. "We're very proud of them."
From the moment after three minutes when scrum-half Damian Stevens had booted them ahead with a penalty to give the scoreboard the most surreal look, this felt like Namibia’s afternoon.
It had the same ambience as that famous evening four years ago at London’s Olympic Stadium when Deysel ploughed over the New Zealand line amid a heroic 58-14 defeat.
Here, with Deysel back as captain, Stevens and Helarius Kisting making a fine half-back partnership and their 32-year-old hooker Torsten Van Jaarsveld foraging inspirationally, the lowest-ranked side in the tournament at number 23 matched the No.1 side blow for blow for half an hour.
When Laulala was yellow-carded for a swinging arm on winger Lesley Klim on the 30-minute mark, they were 10-9 down with the champions rattled and reduced to 14 men.
It had been stirring stuff, but after Stevens’s initial penalty, the All Blacks began to power away with Reece dotting down shortly after through Jordie Barrett’s fine cross-kick, a superb first contribution from the fly-half who had never played test rugby at number 10 but ended with a try, 21 points and the praise of Hansen ringing in his ears. “He played outstandingly well,” said the coach.
When Lienert-Brown, who once again looked one of the players of the tournament with his 106 metres gained and nine defenders beaten, roared through three challenges to score a second try, it seemed normality had returned after Namibian second-row PJ Van Lill’s storming break had momentarily threatened the All Black line.
Yet Namibia would not lie down and took advantage of New Zealand's indiscipline, with Stevens kicking two more penalties to put them within a point before Laulala's trip to the sin-bin offered them even more hope.
Some incredible stats for Anton Lienert-Brown who wins the @mastercard Player of the Match for #NZLvNAM— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 6, 2019
➡️106 metres gained
➡️Two clean breaks
➡️Nine Defenders (Most)#RWC2019 #StartSomethingPriceless #POTM pic.twitter.com/8K2RxPnuSy
Then New Zealand roused themselves. Though a man short, they powered over twice before half-time to seal their bonus point through replacement prop Ta'avao and Ben Smith, who went over after a multi-phase move.
After the break, Namibia were increasingly overwhelmed by the physicality and the tries inevitably flowed. When captain for the day Whitelock burrowed over for a score, it was the perfect way to mark his achievement of becoming the first man to win 17 successive World Cup matches.
Even when Tuungafasi was yellow-carded for a high tackle, Barrett, who had started nervously and had his opening conversion attempt charged down by the diminutive Stevens, joined in the try-fest, pictured above, to end a perfect week for his family after their heroics against Canada. He enjoyed learning that his haul of 21 was two more than even big brother Beauden ever scored in a World Cup match.
Then the champs saved the best for last with the virtuouso scrum-halves' tandem that saw Weber’s magical trick to release Perenara. "That’s what you want to see out there, people expressing themselves," said Perenara. "It was cool to see him do that."