The All Blacks overcame a slow start to beat Ireland 42-19 in Auckland on Saturday night on the back of a strong finish to the first half.
They took 20 minutes to get into the game against a team that had beaten them three times in their last five meetings, but ultimately stretched their unbeaten run at Eden Park to 47 matches in front of a 48,195-strong crowd.
Three All Blacks tries in the final 10 minutes of the first period left Ireland reeling at the break, especially as they also lost five-eighth Jonathan Sexton when he failed a HIA.
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Savea shreds weak Ireland defense
The 23 point win would have come as sweet relief to coach Ian Foster at the end of a week where COVID-19 wreaked havoc with his side’s preparations.
Foster and assistant coach John Plumtree had to isolate at home until the day of the match, while defense coach Scott McLeod and scrum coach Greg Feek were ruled out entirely, along with midfielders David Havili and Jack Goodhue and fullback Will Jordan.
The All Blacks week got worse when Ireland scored the first try of the night as right wing Keith Earls dive over after six minutes at the end of an attack that lasted almost 20 phases.
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The visitors were nearly in for a second soon after when a kick in midfield gave them a two-on-one, only for Beauden Barrett to step up and intercept the final pass, intended for halfback Jamison Gibson-Park.
It took 20 minutes for the All Blacks to mount any sustained pressure, but after debutant Leicester Fainga’anuku went close down the left, Jordie Barrett was able to put them in front after receiving a cut-out pass from Aaron Smith and converting his own try.
Ireland continued to be the team on the front foot, looking to shift the ball quickly, but when James Lowe slipped as a pass came his way on the left, Sevu Reece snaffled up the loose ball and ran 80m to score.
Sexton departed for his HIA at the same time, having been clipped by All Blacks captain Sam Cane in a relatively innocuous incident that nevertheless left him struggling to get to his feet.
Beauden Barrett then showed a touch of class, kicking through the Irish defensive line to set Quinn Tupaea up for a try, while Smith himself went up the middle of a ruck then got enough of a touch as he chased after his own kick to provide for Ardie Savea.
A 23 point lead would have seemed a fantasy just 20 minutes previously and Ireland cut into it straight away as the second half began through center Garry Ringrose, with Joey Carbery, on for Sexton, adding the extras.
Savea responded by shrugging off three Irish tackles to score and restore the All Blacks’ four try advantage, while Ireland were twice denied tries just before the hour mark for knocking on while diving for the line.
Pita Gus Sowakula marked his All Blacks debut off the bench by scoring their sixth try of the night, while Ireland had some late consolation through substitute Bundee Aki.
The big moment
Beauden Barrett’s decision to go for an intercept when faced with two Irish attackers was a bold one, but it denied Ireland what was likely to be a second try when they were on top early and the momentum swung soon after.
7/10: Ireland offered more than many visitors to these shores at this time of year have, especially in the opening 20 minutes, while the All Blacks finish to the first half was them at their clinical best.
Halfback has become a hostly contested position in New Zealand, but Aaron Smith showed why he remains the All Blacks’ No.9 and had a big hand in two of their four first-half tries.
The big picture
The All Blacks overcame some early struggles to notch an important win at the end of a chaotic week, while Ireland will now do well to get something out of this series, with the second test in Dunedin next Saturday.
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