Georgian captain Mamuka Gorgodze was named man of the match today against the All Blacks. His side lost the game by 33 points. That says everything you need to know about how the defending world champions played in Cardiff.
It could have been different. Waisake Naholo’s first touch of the ball in a Rugby World Cup came in the second minute of the match and it led to a try through a moment of individual brilliance. It was essentially the only such moment the All Blacks enjoyed in their pool victory over the world’s 15th ranked team.
This was perhaps the most confused, disjointed, and disorganised 80 minutes of rugby played under the coaching of Steve Hansen. The stat sheet said the All Blacks made 18 handling errors. It seemed like so many more. They put on 22 points in the first 20 minutes, and then chased their tails for the best part of the remaining 60. They scored three tries in the second half and two of those came in the final ten minutes after Georgia had tackled themselves to a standstill.
Let’s not forget: Georgia is a nation that picks fights with Russia. They know how to defend themselves.
The positives. There weren’t many, really. Steve Hansen smiled once, but that was in the second minute. For the next 78 he had the visage of a man who had been struck down by locked in syndrome just at the point he had sniffed a particularly nasty fart.
Julian Savea scored a hattrick which, unfortunately for him, will probably go down as the least memorable hattrick in test match history. The first of his three tries was arguably the most Savea-like of them all – he went some way to restore his reputation as a bus by running over the top of Georgia’s sole try scorer, fullback Beka Tsiklauri.
Tsiklauri, who moments earlier had capitalised on some uncharacteristic hesitation in the All Blacks defensive line, brought the Cardiff crowd to its feet with his try, and offered a smile that could have lit the candles on a kid’s birthday cake. His toothsome grin was only bettered by that of Gorgodze when he heard he had been named man of the match.
No one was convinced by this All Blacks performance, though to the side’s credit (and as a result of experience) the players put on very relaxed faces in the post match wash up, as did coach Steve Hansen who did well to look composed. He must have been steaming like a pile of silage for most of the game.
Credit must go to Milton Haig, the kiwi coach of the Lelos, who had obviously whipped his side into a frenzy ahead of what, for most of them, would have been the game of their lives. Haig had been forced, due to the requirements of qualification for 2019, to rest some of his front line players. The All Blacks may have been glad he did, and they didn’t.
Former All Black Piri Weepu had watched the game from his home in France believed this was a case of the All Blacks getting ahead of themselves, and nothing more sinister than that. It looked that way too as time after time players had to reach behind them for passes that eight times out of ten would have found a far better target.
Weepu’s former All Blacks team mate John Afoa, watching from Gloucester, was a little more forthright, suggesting watching the match was akin to stabbing yourself in the eyes.
The truth was, as ever, somewhere in the middle. The All Blacks dominated the field, were very good at line out time and never looked like losing despite their best intentions to throw away the ball. Messy, yes. Worrying in the greater scheme of the tournament? No. This team is in second gear. They look like a side that is keeping so much in reserve.
The All Blacks ultimately won a game of rugby they were always expected to win, and the romance of a nation enjoying a rugby renaissance rattling the world’s number one side will be, in a couple of weeks, simply a sentimental moment.
It felt good to talk to Piri Weepu after the match. If ever a man knew something about keeping calm, it’s the world cup winning halfback, sitting in France, drinking kava.