New Zealand started the Rugby World Cup with a defeat to hosts France and a backlash of criticism, but now the All Blacks stand one victory away from a history-making fourth title.
The 44-6 rout of Argentina in the semifinals on Friday sent the All Blacks into a record fifth final.
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Only a few weeks ago, observers wrote them off following a 35-7 hammering by South Africa just before the tournament and then a 27-13 defeat to Les Tricolores for a first-ever defeat in the pool stage.
“Criticism and stuff, outside noise, we have become pretty good at blocking out,” captain Sam Cane said. “We trust the coaching staff immensely, we trust the plan. It feels like we’ve built nicely to this point.”
Awaiting New Zealand in the final next weekend will be defending champions South Africa – also chasing title number four – or England. Their semifinal is on Saturday.
“I’ll be watching it, probably have some popcorn. Couldn’t care who wins, to be honest,” New Zealand coach Ian Foster said.
Going into the semifinal with Argentina, there was a question mark over whether the All Blacks could physically and mentally back up their astonishing herculean effort to topple Ireland in the quarterfinals. They did, outclassing an Argentina side trying to reach its first final.
The All Blacks’ defence against the Pumas finished with 195 tackles, but 121 of them were in the first half when they missed only 10. That exhausted the Pumas, who threw everything at the All Blacks but were virtually out of the contest by halftime at 20-6 behind.
As the game opened up more in the second spell, the All Blacks showed off their ruthlessness by building attacks and battering the Pumas to the point of tapping out. They led 39-6 going into the last quarter, when they just added a hat trick try for winger Will Jordan.
Jordan could have had a fourth try in the match but Richie Mo’unga ignored the overlap and chose to go on his own and was wrapped up.
No matter, Jordan has a tournament-leading eight tries, matching the single tournament record set by Jonah Lomu in 1995, Bryan Habana in 2007 and Julian Savea in 2015. And Jordan has the final to come.
Jordan’s overall record in an All Blacks’ jersey now stands at an incredible 31 tries in 30 matches. On Friday, he ran 105m, made seven ball carries, three-line breaks and broke three tackles.
His first try started the rout but the last of the three was the best, putting a fitting seal on the victory, as he ran with ball in hand, chipped ahead and then sprinted past the defence to collect the ball and dive over.
“He just showed how good he is at finishing things on,” said Foster.
It was the most lopsided semifinal result since 1987, when eventual champions New Zealand beat Wales 49-6, started with an early penalty for Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli after they wasted 14 phases in the first two minutes.
Hooker Julian Montoya, the Argentine captain, also paid tribute to New Zealand’s ruthless efficiency.
“Every opportunity they have they score,” he said. “Awesome team.”
The only downer for New Zealand was Scott Barrett’s yellow card with 15 minutes left for a cynical ruck foul and yet their discipline was still impressive. They conceded three penalties in the first half, seven in the match.
The All Blacks draining the tension early on added to a subdued atmosphere at the 80,000-capacity Stade de France, which previously hosted Ireland matches packed with 40,000 green-shirted Irish fans singing their hearts out, or hopeful fans of three-time finalist France.
New Zealand will take some stopping next weekend.
“We are in a good spot, in the final, exactly where we wanted to be,” Cane said.