The All Blacks may have lost veteran prop Tony Woodcock for the remainder of the Rugby World Cup, casting a shadow over the encouraging 47-9 win over Tonga.
Woodcock hobbled off soon after halftime at St James’ Park in Newcastle with a hamstring injury which may bring the curtain down on a stellar 118-Test career.
It was a black moment in an improved showing from the defending champions, who scored five of their seven tries in the final half-hour to end a stuttering four weeks with a perfect pool record – matching their achievement at the previous seven tournaments.
Underwhelming at times during wins over Argentina, Namibia and Georgia, they also struggled for rhythm early against the physical Pacific Islanders.
Ahead just 14-9 when Tongan flyhalf Kurt Morath slotted his third penalty soon after halftime, New Zealand burst into life.
Winger Nehe Milner-Skudder snared a double before further tries to Sonny Bill Williams, flanker Sam Cane and inside centre Ma’a Nonu blew the scoreline out.
Nonu’s long-range try was a popular one in his 100th game, set up by his elusive Hurricanes team-mate Milner-Skudder, who was named man of the match.
Dan Carter, who converted six tries in a welcome return to goalkicking form, finished the game in a ginger state. The veteran flyhalf was dumped in a lifting tackle which resulted in a yellow card for Tongan replacement hooker Paula Ngauamo.
New Zealand also had a player sent to the sin bin, when captain Kieran Read collapsed a maul late in the first half as the cohesive Tongan pack launched a series of drives on the line.
However, most concern surrounds 34-year-old loosehead Woodcock, who has previously announced this is his last international season.
Coach Steve Hansen says scans will determine if his tournament is over.
“If it’s a bad tear it could be reasonably serious. He has played a lot of games for the All Blacks so it would be a sad way for him to finish,” Hansen said.
“He’s been a great All Black and he deserves to go out better than this.”
The first half was especially physical, with the All Blacks able to cross the line just twice, through fullback Ben Smith and Woodcock, who scored his first Test try since the 2011 World Cup final.
Morath slotted two penalties but his team were unfortunate not to be closer after dominating possession for long periods and forcing the world champions into mistakes.
Read says the game ticked several boxes heading into a quarter-final in Cardiff on Saturday next week.
Their opponents will be the loser of the pool D decider between unbeaten France and Ireland in Cardiff on Sunday.
“We got a tough game, which is certainly what you need at this time of the tournament,” he said.
“Obviously there are things we can work on. In the first half they put us under a lot of pressure.”
ALL BLACKS POOL RESULTS
* bt Argentina 26-16, in London
* bt Namibia 58-14, in London
* bt Georgia 43-10, in Cardiff
* bt Tonga 47-9, in Newcastle