LYON, FRANCE (AP) – New Zealand put a foot in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals after tearing apart Italy 96-17 with 14 tries in a phenomenal performance on Friday.
The All Blacks had to beat the Italians to stay in contention for the knockout stage and overwhelmed them in the set-pieces and sliced them up wider out.
They can clinch a quarterfinal spot in their last Pool A game against Uruguay next Thursday in the same Lyon stadium.
“I didn’t see that game coming to that extent,” All Blacks coach Ian Foster said. “I’m not sure too many people did. It was a combination of us playing really well and starting well and I think we took their hope away in the first 20 minutes.”
Italy has one more chance at reaching a first quarterfinal when it faces host France next Friday, also in Lyon.
“They monstered us,” Italy’s New Zealand-born coach Kieran Crowley said of the All Blacks. “I think we won 33 per cent of our scrum ball, 50 per cent of our lineout ball.
“We got beaten by a streetwise team that had their backs against the wall. It will be the same for France next week. They’ve got their backs against the wall a little bit because if they don’t get the points out of the game (against us) they could be on their way home.”
New Zealand scored seven tries in each half, and all but one were converted. By halftime, it led 49-3 en route to its fourth highest Rugby World Cup score.
In an 18-minute span in the middle of the first half, New Zealand scored five converted tries, three of them to scrumhalf Aaron Smith for his first hat trick in his 122nd test.
Italy came into the match in good form after a rare four straight wins, including Namibia and Uruguay in the tournament, while the All Blacks were 1-1 after losing to France and beating Namibia 71-3.
New Zealand also hadn’t played for almost two weeks and reintroduced four key players who hadn’t appeared at the Rugby World Cup while recovering from injuries. Shannon Frizell and Jordie Barrett started while Sam Cane and Tyrel Lomax came off the bench.
Many of the All Blacks’ tries came from lineouts as they asserted themselves at set-pieces and monopolized possession, conceding only two penalties before halftime.
Winger Will Jordan scored New Zealand’s first try after six minutes, catching an accurate cross-kick from centre Jordie Barrett and taking the corner flag as he dived over. Italy quickly replied with a penalty to Tommaso Allan as the match seemed close at first.
But the All Blacks scored five tries from the 16th to the 34th minutes, all converted by flyhalf Richie Mo’unga who was flawless in the first half with seven goals from seven attempts. He finished with nine out of 10 and his replacement Damian McKenzie added four out of four conversions.
Amidst Smith’s hat trick of tries, two of them off lineout mauls, wing Mark Telea carried four defenders over the line in a spectacular show of strength after a breakout from New Zealand’s 22 by captain Ardie Savea, who scored two tries in the first half. Savea’s first inevitably came from a lineout when Frizell dropped the take straight to Savea, who stormed around the back of the line.
“We’ve got talent across the board and we haven’t really clicked, but tonight we played some free rugby and that’s how our boys play,” Savea said. “We put a lot into this week and we got the rewards tonight.
“It was a final for us. It was a do-or-die game. We have to play like this every weekend.”
Italy hadn’t trailed by more than 40 points at halftime in a test since the 1999 World Cup, where New Zealand led 51-3 before winning 101-3.
New Zealand’s discipline broke down a little at the start of the second half, and Italy took advantage to sweep winger Ange Capuozzo into the corner. His fellow wing Monty Ioane bookended the half with Italy’s second try.
But in between was more humiliation.
Smith was replaced in the 49th minute and, at the same time, lock Sam Whitelock took the field for his 149th test, breaking Richie McCaw’s record of test caps for New Zealand. McCaw was among the crowd to see his record broken.
Whitelock immediately had a hand in a try to his locking partner Brodie Retallick from a charged-down clearance. Then back-rower Dalton Papali’i scored their ninth try after Telea made a strong run from a blown Italian lineout.
Mo’unga missed trying to add his 10th conversion, and was replaced by McKenzie, who added a try with other replacements Dane Coles — two — and Anton Lienert-Brown.