By Nick Mulvenney
WINGER Ben Smith scored a hat-trick as a ruthless New Zealand opened their Rugby Championship title defence with a six-try 47-29 victory over Australia on Saturday to ruin Ewen McKenzie’s first match as Wallabies coach.
The world champions scored three tries either side of halftime at the Olympic Stadium with flyhalf Aaron Cruden, captain Richie McCaw and centre Conrad Smith supplementing Ben Smith’s triple score.
Scrumhalf Will Genia and James O’Connor scored what were ultimately consolation tries for the home side with Christian Leali’ifano remaining flawless in international rugby with seven kicks from seven attempts for 19 points with his boot.
As well as giving the All Blacks a bonus point in the Rugby Championship, the victory means Australia must win both the return in Wellington next week and a third test in Dunedin in October to win back the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2003.
That looks highly unlikely given the gulf in class between the sides on this showing with the All Blacks ruthlessly exploiting almost every opportunity they received.
McKenzie will be disappointed that his team failed to build any real momentum in attack and looked disjointed in defence as the excellent Cruden continually changed the point of attack.
There was plenty of optimism among the Wallabies fans in the 68,765 crowd at kickoff with a new coach and a host of fresh faces, including five uncapped players, in the matchday squad.
The hard reality of test rugby hit home after just three minutes, however, when Ben Smith crashed over in the corner for the first All Blacks try.
Pouncing on a Stephen Moore knock on, the New Zealanders charged to the home try line and Aaron Smith fed quick ball to Cruden who took a tackle before finding his winger, whose marker James O’Connor had moved inside, to touch down.
Australia inched back into the match on the back of three Leali’ifano penalties against one from Cruden and the Wallabies centre gave the home side a 12-10 lead with his fourth after 28 minutes.
The advantage lasted less than a minute, though, before Leali’ifano undid some of his good work by having his defensive kick charged down by Cruden, who recovered the ball to score and then converted his own try.
Three minutes later, Jesse Mogg failed to find touch with a clearance kick and the All Blacks stormed forward again with McCaw capping his return to test rugby in the best way possible with a try, his 20th in internationals, in the corner.
As so often, however, Genia provided the Wallabies with some hope after flanker Michael Hooper had snared a loose ball at the lineout, the diminutive scrumhalf racing nearly 60 metres and evading three tackles to touch down under the posts.
Leali’ifano added the extras to reduce the gap to three points but Cruden added his second penalty just before the break to send the All Blacks into halftime 25-19 ahead.
A fifth Leali’ifano penalty six minutes after the break again narrowed the deficit but two tries in six minutes soon put the visitors firmly back in charge.
First scrumhalf Aaron Smith burst up the middle of the Australian defence before feeding centre Conrad Smith, who skipped past Mogg to touch down under the posts for his 24th test try.
The All Blacks were now running rampant and when they got quick ball under the Wallabies’ posts in the 57th minute it was just a matter of getting the ball down the backline to put Ben Smith in for his second score.
Cruden hit the uprights for the second time on the night with his conversion kick but the All Blacks looked comfortable at 37-22, the flyhalf’s intercept soon afterwards almost setting up a try for Julian Savea.
The All Blacks hit the 40 point mark with Cruden’s third penalty and Smith’s third try was simplicity itself when replacement Wallabies centre Tevita Kuridrani released the ball at the tackle leaving the winger to scoop it up and score.
O’Connor cut through on an overlap in the final seconds for the Wallabies but the New Zealanders in the crowd were already singing “All Blacks! All Blacks!” in celebration of handsome victory.
All Blacks crush Australia in Championship opener
By Nick Mulvenney
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