Its status as the beginning of life without Dan Carter added extra interest to New Zealand’s final World Cup pool match, and they responded by belting Canada 79-15 in what can best be described as a light-hearted romp at Wellington Regional Stadium.
The match was overshadowed by what happened at a hotel one and a half kilometres away from the stadium five hours before kick-off.
It was at Wellington’s Inter-Continental hotel that the All Black management hosted a press conference that New Zealand rugby fans everywhere would have been dreading.
Coach Graham Henry, wearing his gravest face, told the assembled reporters what many assumed when Carter limped away from a training session on Saturday afternoon in obvious discomfort: New Zealand’s star flyhalf and backline creator has suffered a groin injury that will rule him out from taking any further part in this World Cup.
With New Zealand television interrupting normal broadcasts to run news flashes on the Carter withdrawal, and with every pundit giving his public opinion on “the massive loss to the All Blacks”, his replacement in this game, Colin Slade, went in under a lot of pressure.
And although the All Blacks won at a canter, shooting into a 37-8 lead at halftime and notching the half century in just over as many minutes, you would have to say that the disquiet of the New Zealand public remained tangibly evident and the questions being asked weren’t really answered.
Slade did some things well, and his neat break to put Zac Guidlford in for the first of his four tries in the sixth minute would both have sent out a positive message about his abilities and settled his jangling nerves.
He also produced a great pass to put Conrad Smith into space to set up another try a few minutes later.
But before that he kicked the ball straight into Canada’s South African born centre DTH van der Merwe and from that Canada won a penalty which they used to put themselves 3-0 ahead after just two minutes.
Slade mixed some quite wild and inaccurate passes in with his moments of precision, one of them leading to a Canada try, and he did not play with the authority that the All Black supporters might have hoped for.
His goalkicking was sometimes good and sometimes mediocre, and he missed four conversions.
When Piri Weepu came onto the field in the second half he both took over the first receiver role and assumed the goalkicking responsibilities, attaining immediate success with a touchline conversion of a try scored by Sonny Bill Williams.
So is there life for the All Blacks after Carter? You can’t say for sure after this game, for the All Blacks, with the scrum dominating their opponents, were simply too strong for Canada and the match was always lopsided as a contest.
CONFUSION ON FLYHALF ISSUE
All Black coach Graham Henry’s decision to bring Weepu in at flyhalf might have reflected the confusion in the home ranks on this issue.
Henry might argue though that with the backline able to run confidently onto the ball it was the perfect opportunity to build the new combinations, though it was unfortunate for the Kiwis that the match happened to coincide with a rest for first-choice inside centre Ma’a Nonu and also with Weepu playing off the bench.
That said, regardless of who they play at flyhalf in next week’s quarterfinal against Argentina, the All Blacks should win comfortably, so they can use the first play-off match as a further chance to build their game and their combinations.
One of the questionmarks about losing Carter would hover over the impact it would have on Sonny Bill Williams when he is on the field.
Carter did appear to have the secret to bringing out the best in the strongly built and prodigiously talented league star.
Well Kiwi fans will be happy to learn that in this game there was no sign of any step backward, for Williams played well and featured in several of the try-scoring movements.
If there was an individual who gained most from the game though it would have been Guildford, who responded positively to his return after being sidelined for a disciplinary infraction, his three tries underlining the depth of options New Zealand have in the back three positions.
It wasn’t only when finishing off tries that Guildford was good, his quick hands in the offload also set up the try scored in the right corner by Israel Dagg, who played on the other wing in this game.
The best All Black try was probably the fifth, which was a long-range effort created by Slade and Guildford dove-tailing up the left touchline before Mils Muliaina, playing his 99th game, slid over.
Then there was also the brilliant 34th-minute try that was set up by Williams’ perfectly weighted chip that was picked up by Muliaina and the fullback sent Guildford in.
In all, New Zealand scored 12 tries, with both the Canadian responses coming from their right wing Conor Trainer.
In the first, scored just before the break, he finished off a line movement as the Canadian backs responded to a rare steady scrum ball by for once finding some accuracy in their quick passing game.
The second came soon after halftime with Trainor kicking through a wayward All Black pass to chase it down himself. It was the last time the Canadians looked capable of the bothering the scoreboard operators.
New Zealand - Tries: Zac Guildford (4), Victor Vito (2), Israel Dagg, Mils Muliaina, Jimmy Cowan, Jerome Kaino (2), Sonny Bill Williams. Conversions: Colin Slade (3), Piri Weepu (4). Penalty: Slade.
Canada - Tries: Conor Trainor (2). Conversion: Ander Monro. Penalty: Monro.