New Zealand gave some shreds of hope to their fellow World Cup aspirants with a stuttering 40-0 win over Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday.
Take a glance at the final score and you would automatically assume that New Zealand produced a clinical display to account for a valiant Scotland. You would, however, be severely mislead, for in reality this was a frustratingly poor game, with only a few glimpses of genius.
It was always going to be a rearguard effort from Scotland, especially after Frank Hadden opted to rest the bulk of his first-choice side, and a disintegrating set-piece hardly made matters easier for them. The writing was on the wall from as early as the fifth minute when Richie McCaw cruised over untouched from an attacking scrum.
But the platform the All Blacks needed was not forthcoming, or at least they were not willing to take the necessary steps to build it. It was clear they were the superior side, yet the nature of their rugby, at times, suggested they were over-confident. For the regularity at which they wasted possession was ill-befitting of their lofty status.
Handed the easiest pool in the World Cup, and with two particularly easy wins already, you could not blame New Zealand for approaching this game as if it was actually going to be a test of their ability. They treated it, for the most, as if it was a game were they could ill afford to gamble on kickable penalties. Although the disdain showed by the crowd on those occasions when McCaw requested Dan Carter to kick penalties, rather than show some adventure, suggests that even the Scottish fans were not pleased with the safety-first style.
Given the approach, Graham Henry will be a wee bit concerned that his men failed to fully impress. A near total domination of territory and possession, and only six tries to show for their efforts will not please the 'Three Wise Men', for at least a further six went begging via elementary errors.
McCaw alluded to the fact that a second-string Scottish side would give them more of a challenge than a tired first-choice team, he couldn't have been further from the truth. The scrum was a non-contest, Scotland were simply destroyed, so much so that they dreaded not gaining advantage from the countless All Black errors.
Credit then to Dave Callam who was nothing short of heroic in his efforts at the base of the scrum. That he was able to get back to the gain line more often than not is testament to his ability, for his fellow forwards showed no such resolve at the initial set-piece. Scotland coach Frank Hadden will need to work wonders on the scrum before the Italy game, else it could be a repeat performance in an altogether more important game.
It was not as if the rest of their game was much better either, and the unlucky injury to Chris Paterson may actually have been a blessing in disguise. For before he departed the fray it was quite clear his kicking was out of sorts. Two penalty kicks in the opening quarter failed to find touch, an inexcusable crime at this level, and three clearance kicks sliced carelessly off the side of his boot did little to redeem him.
Perhaps the only significant event of a lacklustre first half was Doug Howlett's try, the first of two on a special day for the Auckland wing. The try itself was as easy as they come, Leon MacDonald drawing the last defender before sending Howlett in from ten metres out. What the try signified though was far more important.
Having scored a hat-trick against Italy, Howlett had drawn level with the great Christian Cullen as the joint leading try-scoring All Black of all time. His 15th minute effort here taking him out all on his own. A second try late in the game ensured he will have more than a fighting chance of making it to fifty before the World Cup is over.
A Carter penalty early in the second half was followed up by a searing break from Luke McAlister, straight from the re-start no less, suggested as if New Zealand were finally clicking into gear. The knock-on deep in the Scottish twenty two with numbers on either side confirmed that this was going to continue to be a distinctly average game.
Continued Scottish infringements deep in their own territory seemed as if they would allow New Zealand to pull away with the game. But they were equalled by constant All Black errors, hardly the sign of a team who are billed as favourites. It would seem that the relative ease of their pool could well be their downfall later in the tournament - a display like this against either France or Australia and they will be waiting another four years, at least, before they win the World Cup again.
Two of the last three tries were a result of Scottish exhaustion, while one came from their own mistake, allowing Carter to race away. With only two conversions from six attempts, and a pretty shocking all-round display from the fly-half it seems as if New Zealand are starting to wobble slightly. Maybe, just maybe, the prospect of a quarter-final against France is starting to play on their mind. After all they are a team who are clearly under done.
As for Scotland they go forward to their vital clash with Italy with nothing from this game. Most of those given a chance to prove themselves failed miserably. Saint Etienne could well prove to be the scene of another frustrating Pool C encounter. Or maybe Scotland and Italy could surprise us and finally give this pool a game of note.
Man of the Match: The main candidate from Scotland comes in the form of David Callam. He was given no platform at the scrum and yet produced a back-foot display that came close to perfection. That he then still found the energy to make himself known in the loose, not to mention his relentless tackling, is a wonder. However his efforts were in vain, and rightly so this award goes to a New Zealander. Leon MacDonald looked to be the best on the field before he went off injured, and so the award goes to Doug Howlett, and not just for his two tries. He worked hard in both attack and defence and his efforts merited the two record-breaking scores he claimed. New Zealand will need him to continue in the same rich vein if they are to make it all the way to Paris on October 20.
Moment of the Match: Scotland knew they would need to start well, and so an early Richie McCaw try did little for their cause. From then on in it was an uphill battle they were destined to lose.
Villain of the Match: With the amount of frustration on display it was a wonder tempers did not boil over. Credit then to all involved for sticking to the game.
For New Zealand:
Tries: McCaw, Howlett 2, Kelleher, Williams, Carter
Cons: Carter 2
Pens: Carter 2
New Zealand: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Byron Kelleher, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Chris Masoe, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Reuben Thorne, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Anton Oliver, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Neemia Tialata, 18 Chris Jack, 19 Sione Lauaki, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Nick Evans, 22 Isaia Toeava
Scotland: 15 Hugo Southwell, 14 Nikki Walker, 13 Marcus Di Rollo, 12 Andrew Henderson, 11 Simon Webster, 10 Chris Paterson, 9 Chris Cusiter, 8 David Callam, 7 John Barclay, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Scott Murray (c), 4 Scott MacLeod, 3 Craig Smith, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements: 16 Fergus Thomson, 17 Gavin Kerr, 18 Jim Hamilton, 19 Allister Hogg, 20 Rory Lawson, 21 Dan Parks, 22 Rob Dewey.
Referee: Marius Jonker
Touch judges: Paul Marks, Dave Pearson
Television match official: Hugh Watkins
Assessor: Michel Lamoulie
By Marcus Leach