There had been pre-match speculation that Italy might prove more than just a speed bump to All Black ambitions. So much for that cosy theory. By the end a brilliant New Zealand had accelerated so far out of sight they almost clocked three figures, a first-half hat-trick from the wonderfully sharp Aaron Smith just one of the highlights of a chastening night for the Azzurri.
It also provided a reminder, as if it were needed, that New Zealand cannot be discounted when the knockout stages of this tournament finally come around. The setbacks of the past month have clearly focused minds and a week’s rest has recharged them physically. The upshot was one of those nights when the All Blacks make rugby look so gloriously simple that the opposition barely know where to put themselves.
If it helps that an overwhelmed Italy gave them way too much space, their potential quarter-final opponents Ireland have been suitably forewarned. As well as two-try contributions from their captain, Ardie Savea, and Will Jordan plus Richie Mo’unga’s fine kicking, the defensive solidity of the front five was impressive and made it a fitting night for Sam Whitelock to take the field in the second half and eclipse Richie McCaw’s record as the most capped All Black in the game’s history.
The All Blacks, on this compelling evidence, are most definitely back. Give them a sniff and there are still few better at taking expert advantage. If their opening-night defeat to France was disappointing, this felt like a timely reaffirmation. “I didn’t see that game coming to that extent,” said the head coach, Ian Foster. “I’m not sure too many people did. I think we took their hope away in the first 20 minutes. This was a game we really prepared well for … it was the performance we were looking for.”
Ultimately it was total carnage, starting from the moment Jordie Barrett’s inch-perfect connection with Jordan allowed the prolific winger to finish acrobatically in the right corner. If Italy were a touch unfortunate with a couple of early refereeing calls, their desire to attack New Zealand was not matched by their defensive organisation and three tries in just over five minutes for Smith, the wing Mark Telea and Savea secured their side a bonus point inside 22 minutes of the kick-off.
If it was already clear that Italy were in for a tough night, it was about to get worse. Smith remains a splendidly sharp presence around the base of the scrum and another lineout drive set him up to dart over for a second opportunist try. Italy, by now, were barely laying a finger on the ball and heads had started to droop even before Smith completed his treble six minutes before the interval.
In many ways it was the try that showcased New Zealand at their best: Mo’unga’s clever identification of space, a lovely little delayed pass to put Jordie Barrett away followed by an unselfish inside ball to his supporting scrum-half. Perfection in three simple, repeatable actions.
Savea’s second try moments before half-time, again showcasing the effectiveness of New Zealand’s maul, was less beautiful but equally valuable and with Mo’unga slotting his goals with slot machine regularity there could be no massaging the inflated half-time scoreline. The All Blacks were only slightly less ruthless in the second half, with Brodie Retallick going over within 10 minutes of the restart and Dalton Papalii also adding his name to the scoresheet in the third quarter.
Still they kept coming, a lovely little front of the lineout ploy putting the veteran Dane Coles over for a try also notable for the fact Mo’unga finally missed a conversion at the 10th attempt. After another delicious score, this time for Damian McKenzie on a lovely angle, the only remaining question was whether or not New Zealand could notch up their century, as they did against these opponents at the 1999 World Cup. They did not quite do so but consolation scores for Ange Capuozzo and Monty Ioane changed nothing. “What can you say?” sighed their coach, Kieran Crowley. “It turned into a glorified team run for them, didn’t it? But you have to give them credit; I thought they were pretty outstanding tonight. We’ve got to pick up the pieces, which we will.”