The Tongans showed all the signs of a team for whom the occasion had become bigger than the match, looking leaden-footed and hesitant. These players play very little international rugby, not being exposed to an annual championship like the Six Nations or the Tri-Nations, and thus have very little big-game experience. They don’t come much bigger than the opening game of the World Cup, and initially the Tongans gave a poor account of themselves.
The emotion of the occasion was apparent on the face of skipper Finau Maka during the anthems, and in what was the biggest match in their history, the islanders froze on stage for the first forty minutes.
In contrast, the Kiwis got off to a dream start. A very un-Tongan lack of physicality made it more like a training run than a cup match, and the Kiwi backs were quick to hone in and exploit the weakness. Superstar Sunny-Bull Wull’yums had a luminous first half, showcasing the full-range of his distribution skills: one-handed off-loads through three tacklers, a well-concealed switch-pass from out of the back of his hand … the full menu. Ciarán Fitzgerald, a commentator not noted for his rhapsodies, was ebullient in his praise for the sometime pugilist on the Setanta Sports broadcast.
The Kiwis had the bonus point wrapped up within thirty-two minutes, the Mole’s ‘One to Watch’ Israel Dagg bagging a pair of tries; slashie Richard Kahui also notched up a brace in what was an assured performance on the wing. It was 29-0 coming up to halftime before Tonga were able to get a score on the board, ex-Clonakilty outhalf Kurt Morath [surely it’s the same guy?] knocking over a penalty from inside the gimme box.
Big Isitolo Maka, formerly of Toulouse and now the coach of the Tongan national team, rang the changes at half-time. The Mole would hazard that he also read them the riot act in the pavilion as well, evoking the whole gamut of cultural touchstones, because the Tongan team that came out for the second half was simply a different beast.
The subs were obviously bursting to get on, having seen their squadmates surrender the front foot throughout the first half. Replacement loosehead Sona Taumalolo – on for Soane Tonga’uiha, who was very disappointing – had an immense half-hour, giving Owen Franks huge problems at scrum-time, smashing Dan Carter in a tackle and carrying with immense strength and hard-charging leg-drive close in. His great effort was rewarded with a five pointer when he hurled himself through the tackle of Sir Rutchie McCaw to dot down to the left of the sticks.
While the Tongans made their own luck in the second half, they had some help from an increasingly slipshod performance from the New Zealanders. If the Superstar had been all business in the first half, he was all show in the second, twice butchering scoring chances that would have kept the Kiwis ticking over and allowed them to approach the generous spread. Iceman Toeava also showed a lack of finishing prowess, dragging his foot across the touchline where a more practiced winger would have scored.
Beer drinkin’, fun havin’ Andy Hore [HORE!] had an excellent all-round game, making a couple of beautiful turnovers at the breakdown, but Big Bad Brad Carnegie Thorn was once again quiet. It could well be that this is a season too many for the old warhorse. He wasn’t the worst performer in the New Zealand pack though; not by a long shot.
Victor Vito is not at the races. As the Mole pointed out in his squad preview, it was a curious call from Graham Henry to omit Liam Messam. The lack of a true No8 in Kieran Read’s absence was painfully apparent. Henry’s determination to only consider players who play in NZ has meant omitting old hands Rodney So’oialo [31, Honda Heat] and Chris Masoe [32, Castres]: while So’oialo has missed a lot of rugby recently, Masoe had an awesome season for Castres, finishing top of Midi Olympique’s Le Classement des Etoile Midol ahead of every player in France: Wilkinson, van Niekirk, Gorgodze, Harinodoquy, Fernandez Lobbe … everyone. There’s not a doubt in the Mole’s admittedly small brain that either Messam or Masoe would have had a far superior game than that of Vito.
In contrast Jerome Kaino tackled and carried well in the second half, when there weren’t too many Kiwis putting their hands up. Tony Woodcock looks short of fitness, and Ben Franks is a big step down in class … it could well be that John Afoa gets his place on the bench, going from that half-hour outing.
Surprisingly, neither McCaw nor Carter played particularly well. They both had reasonable outings, but didn’t really look to be stretching themselves. Jimmy ‘The Mouth of the South’ Cowan had a poor enough showing, and while Piri Weepu offers a far wider skillset, more authority and leadership, his pass is still a very iffy customer for a first rank international scrum-half.
In summation then, a game that was over after half an hour, because the Tongans froze when it mattered most. The spread offered by the bookies was way off, but the islanders almost played down to it; when they got themselves into the game, the Kiwis felt their grinding forward power, and a surprisingly well-trained scrum. Still, a facile if not overly convincing win for the hosts.
New Zealand Top Three:
No1: Nonu – an assured performance from a man playing out of position. Great passing, great lines of running, strong and decisive every time he got the ball
No2: Hore – putting Mealamu under pressure with an excellent turnover rate at the breakdown, and rock-solid darts at lineout time
No3: Dagg – not at all tested in defense, but looked classy as all hell in attack. He’s going to win a lot of caps
Tongan Top Three
No1: Taumalolo – only on for thirty-odd minutes but Tonga’s best performer. Incredible scrummaging effort against the tough Owen Franks, powerful carrying, a great work-rate and a real hunger for battle
No2: Moa – the bustling scrum-half switched to outhalf in broken play during the second period and was a combative, assured performer
No3: Kalamafoni – the blindside had a diligent hard-working first half, and then really came to life in the second