Dealing with rust in wet conditions is never easy and the All Blacks found that out as they creaked and groaned against the grit of the Irish and a decent old Wellington storm before seeing out a much-needed 21-11 victory on Saturday night.
Duncan Johnstone reports for RugbyHeaven NZ that the All Blacks, on the back of that World Cup loss eight months earlier, were looking for a commanding performance to kick off the new Graham Henry era.
It was victory at all costs, given a 103-year unbeaten record against the men in green was on the line. Then, under the circumstances with the freezing rain and wind, it turned into winning any which way was possible.
That was achieved in a determined but messy fashion. Now it’s on to Eden Park and England where we await to see if there is some polish to go with the encouraging endeavour shown in the capital.
Having battled their way to match the Irish at 8-all at halftime it always appeared that the All Blacks, with the strong wind behind them, could eventually engineer a victory.
But the Irish made this a dogfight to the finish.
In the end the All Blacks got home on a piece of magic in each half.
Conrad Smith made the first sweet break 15 minutes into the match and Dan Carter the second 20 minutes from the end to set up decisive tries to Sitiveni Sivivatu and Ma’a Nonu.
Taking those two chances proved the difference with Carter’s improving boot providing some necessary extras.
The forwards were hugely energetic if not always accurate as could be excused in the condtiions. When they did get it right their low body positions made their cleanout and driving work particularly effective.
Skipper Richie McCaw was into everything on defence and attack. Rodney So’oialo was highly industrious and the recalled No 8 Jerome Kaino buried himself into a busy night’s work.
Recalled tighthead John Afoa put in a storming opening quarter before he had the misfortune of being forced off with a knee injury and Neemai Tialata answered his critics by switching sides to dominate both the scrum and some of the work around the fringes.
Locks Brad Thorn and Ali Williams churned away on a night made for bump and grind.
Out in the backs, having to revert to the old laws certainly put some added heat on Carter where he found a lot less time space to work under. He struggled with that adjustment initially but had a controlled second spell.
The new midfield combination came away with a pass mark. Nonu fluffed his first chance with a dropped pass but then had a solid night that was capped by the crucial second try where he used his brutal power to get to the line.
Outside him Smith will be happy that he took the one bit of space made available to him to get the All Blacks under way.
This wasn’t a night to be an outside back and debutant Anthony Tuitavake hardly got a touch of the ball out on the right wing and was replaced by Leon MacDonald after 50 minutes.
The freezing southerly and rain that arrived just before kick-off were reflected by New Zealand’s sloppy start. Within the opening eight minutes they had made five elementary errors, from knock-ons, to charged down kicks to miss touchfinders and then an offence at the breakdown that allowed Ronan O’Gara to open the scoring with a penalty for the visitors.
The All Blacks clicked into gear in the 15th minute when they turned over ruck ball from an Irish lineout and the ball spun wide for Smith to break up the middle and feed Sitiveni Sivivatu for the try in the corner.
But the Irish, with the wind behind them, camped at the right end of the park and the pressure told when they out-numbered the All Blacks to get second five Paddy Wallace over.
New Zealand got on even terms when Carter landed his first goal from three attempts just before halftime.
The Irish struck first after the break with O’Gara landing a good penalty into the teeth of the wind and just as quickly Carter replied at the other end.
The stalemate continued through to the hour mark before Irish prop Marcus Horan was penalised for using a forearm and Carter edged New Zealand clear at 14-11.
Carter then took things into his own hands when he broke the Irish line with a 30m break. Quick ball around the fringes by the forwards with replacement prop John Schwalger off-loading a clever pass freed up Nonu to charge to the line and then slither over in the tackle.
The All Blacks were 10 points clear was too much for the Irish on a night as shoddy as this one.
It wasn’t a memorable win for the All Blacks other than the victory. But it was a win that was absolutely vital.
It will have done much for the confidence of this New Zealand team.
New Zealand 21: Sitiveni Sivivatu, Ma’a Nonu tries; Dan Carter 3 pens, con.
Ireland 11: Paddy Wallace try; Ronan O’Gara 2 pens.