All Blacks click in big win over Fiji

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Satisfaction will be much more prevalent after the All Blacks signed off their July series appetiser with a clinical win over Fiji that solidified several of Ian Foster’s first-choice selections.

Widely criticised for their muddled effort, and lack of urgency at the breakdown, in the 34-point victory against Fiji in Dunedin last week, the All Blacks delivered a vastly-improved performance in the repeat duel with the Pacific Islanders in Hamilton.

The 20,135 locals – the biggest crowd of the three tests this month – who braved wet and blustery conditions were treated to nine tries from the All Blacks. While that was the same number as last week, the All Blacks were more dominant in most aspects.

Richie Mo’unga seized his chance to impress Foster and maintain his edge over Beauden Barrett in the first five-eighth pecking order with an influential display. Mo’unga had a hand in four tries – three involving in-form Crusaders teammate Sevu Reece – to firmly stake his claims before being replaced after 52 minutes.

Collectively, the All Blacks forwards brought a much more direct approach to their carrying which put the team on the front foot and allowed the backline to breathe easier than last week when Fiji smothered the breakdown and forced indecisive decision-making.
Sam Whitelock’s authority in regaining the captaincy was evident, too, in the way he gathered his troops in a huddle during the first half and barked orders to reflect the influence he commands.

Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson and Ardie Savea varied their work and combined well in the loose trio -Savea barging over to collect a try and celebrate his 50th test. Anton Lienert-Brown was quieter in his 50th test after returning from elbow surgery, but will no doubt be better for the run alongside David Havili.

Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho – called up late in the week to replace Dane Coles – made a notable impression off the bench, claiming two tries on test debut and carrying powerfully as he has done all season.

Rieko Ioane, likewise, injected significant impact from the bench when he replaced Will Jordan on the right wing early in the second half.

The All Blacks will be pleased their scrum and rolling maul continue to lay dominant platforms and with the greater urgency they brought to their defensive duties – highlighted by Damian McKenzie and Barrett scrambling back to make a try-saving tackle after Ben Volavola snaffled an intercept.

Fiji managed to score one try – loosehead pro Peni Ravai strolling in easily off the back of a maul – but unlike last week they were never in this contest.

Backing up last week’s inspired performance – Fiji had never played the All Blacks in successive matches before – proved a bridge too far, especially with referee Damon Murphy policing the breakdown much more strictly than in Dunedin. Fiji’s poor discipline – they conceded 14 penalties – proved their downfall throughout.

With Tonga and Fiji as opponents, July was always going to be an appetiser to the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship for the All Blacks.

As is often the case at this time of year the All Blacks did not immediately click – in part due to the mass changes Foster has made each week with a view to building depth and experimenting to find his first-choice side.

On this evidence many of those who featured prominently tonight will retain their places for the opening Bledisloe on August 7, when another significant step up will be required.

It was another erratic start from the All Blacks with Fiji opening them up through the midfield and controlling the opening exchanges. The All Blacks lineout malfunctioned at times and McKenzie kicked out on the full to allow Fiji to set the early tone.

Once the All Blacks settled, though, their attack flowed nicely with Mo’unga pulling the strings. Havili continued his impressive return to the test arena by hitting a flat Mo’unga pass, jinking through the line and sending Reece over for his first try with an inside flick ball.

Fiji couldn’t replicate their stifling, frustrating efforts at the breakdown with referee Murphy frequently pinging the visitors for going off their feet which, for long periods of the first spell, reduced the game to a stop start spectacle.

Mo’unga laid on Reece’s second with a perfectly-executed short side play. Aaron Smith snipped blind from the scrum to set Mo’unga away and he held up the pass brilliantly to send Reece in.

Murphy eventually lost patience to send Fiji captain Leone Nakarawa to the bin for repeat team infringements – just after Reece collected his third from a wobbly Mo’unga skip ball – to further compound challenges containing the All Blacks.

Savea crashed over following to strong, direct carries from Ioane and George Bower to establish a 29-6 halftime lead and send Fiji a clear message that there would be no let up.

That proved the case with the All Blacks continuing to pile on the points in the second spell with their bench adding impact and Fiji making few inroads.

As an exercise the All Blacks will take more lessons from last week, when they were seriously challenged, than in this more comfortable victory.

But, for now at least, they can move into the next phase of the season with confidence, having amended several areas of concern.

All Blacks 60 (Sevu Reece 3, Samisoni Taukei’aho 2, Ardie Savea, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Shannon Frizell tries; Richie Mo’unga 5 cons, pen, Beauden Barrett con)
Fiji 13 (Peni Ravai try; Ben Volavola con, 2 pens)
HT: 29-6.

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