LONDON (Reuters) - New Zealand centre Ma’a Nonu scored a late try against Tonga on Friday in his 100th test, helping his team to a thumping victory and top spot in Pool C ahead of a hectic weekend when the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals will be determined.
The 47-9 win in Newcastle ended any faint hopes the gritty Pacific islanders had of making it out of their group, although there was never any real threat to the holders.
As in previous wins over Namibia and Georgia, the New Zealanders veered at times between carelessness and brilliance, especially in the first half.
“They put us under a lot of pressure,” captain Kieran Read said after the game. “Our work up front needs to probably improve. We’ll regroup, but we’re glad to be where we are.”
The win also guarantees Argentina progress to the quarter-finals even before they play Namibia on Sunday.
In the quarter-finals, New Zealand will meet either France or Ireland, who face each other on Sunday in a key Pool D encounter.
Although both have qualified for the knockout stages, they will be desperate to prevail and avoid the mighty All Blacks in eight days’ time.
For Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, the prospect of an extra day’s break is the real prize at stake in the physical slog of a Rugby World Cup, even more than avoiding the tournament favourites.
“The greatest reason is to get another day before we have to play again to be honest. It just allows a little bit more breathing space to be slightly better prepared and slightly better recovered,” he told reporters on Friday.
“That would be the major reason, because I don’t think anyone, based on their performances so far, could underestimate the Argentinian team, and not just the personnel they’ve got but the collective they’ve demonstrated on the pitch.”
Pool B looks even more tense, with Scotland having to beat a dangerous Samoa side on Saturday to ensure a place against either Wales or Australia.
“For a lot of us this is going to be the biggest match of our careers,” Scotland number eight David Denton said as the team welcome back fit-again flyhalf Finn Russell.
Were Samoa to win, Japan would be well placed to go through if they beat the United States on Sunday, in what would be their first appearance in the knockout phase of a Rugby World Cup four years before they host the event.
It would be a timely boost for the Brave Blossoms, whose stunning defeat of rugby powerhouse South Africa has been one of the highlights of this year’s competition so far.
“We’ve got to go out there and play our best rugby, play with physical and mental intensity,” Japan coach Eddie Jones said after victory over Samoa.
Australia against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday will decide which team top Pool A and avoid twice champions South Africa in the last eight as well as a potential semi-final against the All Blacks.
“We aren’t having to desperately win the game to reach the quarter-finals. But win this group and potentially the route through to the quarters, semis and finals is easier than the other side,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said.
For eliminated hosts England, the tortuous build-up to Saturday’s dead rubber against Uruguay drew to a close as coach Stuart Lancaster was forced to play down a training ground bust-up between his assistant Mike Catt and flyhalf Danny Cipriani.
editing by Justin Palmer