New Zealand vs. Italy
Saturday, 11 October 2003
Telstra Dome, Melbourne
Referee: Michael Cole (Australia)
New Zealand 70, Italy 7
Half-time: New Zealand 25, Italy 0
Well, after four long years, the 2003 Rugby World Cup is under way. The teams are in Australia, the opening ceremony has passed, the first games have been played and of course, the All Blacks have finally got a game under their belt. The verdict? A good first-up effort but still too many errors to inspire confidence against a more formidable opponent.
Saturday's 70-7 victory over Italy was on the face of it a good, solid, first-up walloping, 11 tries to one, with some impressive running and achievements from the backline, in particular. But the Italians, as shown by their emotional response to their national anthem, were like the Argentinians against Australia the night before: determined not to be outplayed.
Highlights included Howlett's inspirational runaway try after Carter got the ball inside the All Blacks' 22-metre line. Justin Marshall had a competent halfback display and his own try from a tap-kick was well judged, but there were concerns.
A knee injury to vice-captain Tana Umaga (replaced by Ma'a Nonu) sparked worried looks where this correspondent was sitting. But it was nothing compared to the reaction towards Joe Rokocoko who was in visible agony when he pulled a hamstring as he crossed the line for his last try.
The All Blacks are a solid squad but injuries to players like these do nothing for national morale. Rugby fans in this country will be anxiously watching all medical reports on them over the next few days.
In addition, the All Blacks knocked on, turned over and generally spilled the ball too many times when on attack. It was not a pretty sight and whatever Italy's standing as a rugby nation, this has to be tidied up.With Carlos Spencer, Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko scoring two tries (the latter bringing up a record 13 tries for the season, then injuring himself) the game provided some good passing and fast-moving action. The All Blacks, however, had to face much of the same from the Italian squad. Their efforts were rewarded in the 51st minute when number eight Matthew Phillips (a New Zealand transplant) crossed the line for fullback Gert Peens conversion.
The All Blacks had previously held the Italians up twice over the line, but finally had to concede the points. It's fair to say, though, that the Italians rarely looked like scoring again after that effort.
Brad Thorn's first test try and captain Reuben Thorne's a few minutes later sparked off sharper play by the New Zealanders, initially stilted by the Italian response.
Carlos Spencer's leadership of the haka was adept and his two tries the result of good positional play but his goal-kicking, other than the first penalty, was not impressive. This correspondent could not help but cringe as kick after kick either veared away or hit the posts. Daniel Carter's performance seemed more assured, his own tries boosting a good all-round match, missing only two attempts on the day.
To sum up then, allowing for rustiness, a satisfactory performance from the All Blacks against a brave Italian team. The bigger tests are yet to come. Do the All Blacks have the fortitude and depth to withstand the pressures of the next six weeks? We've thought so before, but we can only hope so now.