Let’s go physical: The All Blacks pay the price for a sluggish start.

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Fiji captain Levani Botia. All Blacks v Fiji, Steinlager Series, international rugby union test match. Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, New Zealand. Saturday 10 July 2021.

Fiji captain Levani Botia lived up to his nickname ‘Demolition Man’ Photo: Photosport

Opinion – There was a lot of talk about how much fun the All Blacks’ 57-23 triumph over Fiji was last night, but the attitude in Ian Foster’s camp next week should be deadly serious.

For years, the coaching staff has said that the All Blacks need to be more physical, yet for the best part of an hour at Forsyth Barr Stadium, they were eaten up and spit out by a Fijian squad that had just returned from two weeks in quarantine.

Sounds harsh after what ended up being a comfortable win, however the same lack of intensity that cost the All Blacks in losses to Argentina and Australia last year was on display in Dunedin.

Just look at the way Fiji scored its tries: all three off lineouts, the area of the game these days where a team exerts its combined forward strength. Most embarrassing of all, the All Blacks were forced to concede a penalty try off an unstoppable Fijian lineout drive.

That was only the third penalty try the All Blacks have ever conceded and the first for getting dominated by an opposition forward pack (the other two were a tackle off the ball by Ron Cribb in 2001 and Sonny Bill Williams forgetting he wasn’t playing league in 2017.

After they had everything their own way against Tonga last weekend, this was a rude shock. It was no more evident than on Beauden Barrett’s face, after copping two black eyes in training he now has a couple of nasty gashes on his face thanks to a stray boot.

To their credit, the All Blacks did send in the firefighters with a strategy to effectively extinguish the Fijian threat when the score was a tense 31-23.

Dane Coles and Samuel Whitelock both led the way in a second-half offensive surge that helped to restore the All Blacks’ formidable reputation. Coles was the first test forwards to score four tries in 22 years, but he would be the first to concede the first three should have gone to the full pack and their well-drilled ability to convert penalties into lineout drives scoring opportunities.

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But this Fijian team was always going to run out of gas, as brave as they were.

They had a stroke of luck when skipper Levani Botia should have at least seen a yellow card for a heavy and high shot on Damian McKenzie, however their lack of preparation time was ruthlessly exploited by the All Blacks when they targeted their lineout defence. It was somewhat ironic that the Fijians’ most potent attacking weapon was also their biggest defensive liability.

There were touches of what we generally associate with Fijian rugby when Eroni Sau and Botia cut through the All Black defence.

There were touches of what we generally associate with the All Blacks when George Bridge chimed into the line to set up Jordie Barrett’s opening try, or when Will Jordan continued his dream start to his test career by bagging his eighth in four games. And there were plenty of touches of what we generally associate with referee Paul Williams, as he found a way to whistle up no less than 30 penalties.

This test and last weekend have exposed why these tests were going to be somewhat of a no-win situation for the All Blacks.

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Turn on a hiding like against Tonga and everyone will wonder what the point was. Allow a fired up team like Fiji to turn it into somewhat of a contest (at least for a while) and everyone will wonder if this side has what it takes to dominate the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas.

No doubt the next few days are going to see plenty more talk about the team’s physicality, so they can at least attempt to answer that question next weekend in Hamilton.


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