With minutes to go at FedEx Field the scoreline stood at 14-92. Like Columbus, the All Blacks had wreaked havoc upon the new world. They didn’t stop there, though, scoring twice in the dying moments, for 16 tries and 104 points on the board.
It was a shadow team, too. Unsurprisingly, it was hard to get much from the coach, Ian Foster, and captain, Sam Whitelock, about what the game might mean in terms of tougher Tests to come in Europe.
The last time the All Blacks played the US, a 74-6 win in Chicago in 2014, key players were injured. They turned out fine but there was some worry about a game against England to follow. This time, Foster responded to a British reporter’s rather plaintive question about injuries with a smile and a shrug. Nope, none.
If you looked hard – as hard as the most optimistic Welshman, say – there were some points to be made. The Eagles were horribly outmatched but their line-out held up and in the third quarter they even caused a few problems, ultimately taking the consolation of scoring the first two tries by an American team against New Zealand.
“They did focus on the line-out,” Foster said. “They won a lot of their ball cleanly, they kept the ball and then all of a sudden we started giving away penalties. It’s something for us that we need to address.”
Foster also said that as a coach it was “nice to be grumpy about a few things”, and then risked a minor diplomatic incident by appearing to diss a major US pro league. “The reality is a bit of looseness came into our game, particularly trying too much. I think we’d watched too much NBA in the week.”
It’s usually northern hemisphere fans and pundits who deride southerners for playing rugby like basketball, prioritising points over pack-work and penalties, so it was slightly unusual to hear it from Foster. Only slightly. The sound of straws being clutched could also be made out in questions asked of Gary Gold, the Eagles’ shell-shocked coach. And anyway, Foster was not about to admit much more in the way of weakness or even vague disappointment.
“We went into the game like this with some targets,” he said, of a contest he called a “hit-out” but which might equally have been called an opposed training run. His men, he said, would be “focusing on a few things [that] I probably won’t share the details of.”
“But I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of being able to get a number of new players out there. Six players had played a total of 10 Tests. So for us that’s certainly a good experience.” Then he stated the obvious: “It’s going to be some pretty different situations coming up in the next four weeks.”
No doubt, some pretty different All Blacks teams will be picked to face Wales, Italy, Ireland and France. In Landover, Maryland – in a stadium not in the District of Columbia, despite being home to the Washington Football Team – Sam Cane, Dane Coles, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara and Anton Lienert-Brown all came on from the bench. Running on with those enormously experienced men was Josh Lord, a big second row winning his first cap and who was, it turned out when he faced the press himself, not to be drawn into admitting any line-out concerns.
What else to suggest for possible chinks in the All Blacks’ armour? Well, the US did score two tries. That didn’t suggest any real problem but it was refreshing to hear the full-back Damian McKenzie, a fizzing threat in attack all game, smilingly call the home scrum-half Nate Augspurger a “tough bugger” who, “good on him, has done me inside out” for the first.
There was also the rather endearing fact that when asked about the atmosphere during the game, as around 39,000 fans applauded All Black tries and roared for the Eagles’ efforts, Captain Whitelock first pronounced himself distinctly impressed with the carpark.
“When we got 500m from the stadium you could see all the barbecues with the trucks and the tailgates,” he said. “The atmosphere was popping outside the stadium and when we got in it was pretty awesome. It was one of those moments, as a player.”
Cardiff, Dublin and Paris will generate atmospheres of their own, of course, intense as bearpits should the home sides stir up a fight. The All Blacks will take nothing at all for granted.
“This is a tour like no other,” Foster said. “We’ve had five Tests back in the southern hemisphere, then two weeks when we couldn’t go home [thanks to Covid] and now there’s five weeks in the northern hemisphere.
“So this game was vital for us. A number of players who hadn’t played in three or four weeks had a really good chance for a hit-out. We go to Wales next week, we’ve had a little bit of contact under our belt and I’m really delighted with some of the skills that we’ve shown.”