The whispers around the All Blacks starting fly-half position for the defence of their World Cup title are beginning to grow more boisterous with each passing Super Rugby round.
Luke McAlister’s boot eased the All Blacks to an unconvincing 20-6 Test rugby win over Italy after a brutal forward battle at a packed San Siro on Saturday.
McAlister’s five penalties and Corey Flynn’s first-half try was enough for the second-string All Blacks, who were given plenty to think about by the hosts who were dominant up front but couldn’t finish their few scoring chances.
Roared on by a cacophony of noise in the 80,000-seat arena, Italy’s scrum demolished the All Blacks’, with Leicester prop Martin Castrogiovanni dominating his opposite Wyatt Crockett.
The All Blacks were safely home but had to endure a series of scrums on their goal-line in the dying minutes, with tighthead Neemia Tialata sinbinned in the 78th minute for repeated collapses.
Italy also competed strongly at the breakdown, with experienced loose forwards Mauro Bergamasco and Sergio Parisse prominent, while All Blacks captain Rodney So’oialo toiled bravely for the tourists in a beaten pack.
Having led 14-6 at the break, the rattled All Blacks couldn’t kick away but were handed enough penalties to stay in front, with McAlister kicking five from nine attempts.
Debut five-eighth Mike Delany showed some nice touches but found it tough in the cauldron, with Stephen Donald replacing him with 15 minutes left.
The All Blacks coaches boldly made 12 changes to their side against an experienced Italian outfit, with debuts to Delany, Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith.
It added up to a total 214 caps, the least experienced All Blacks starting lineup since the combined 206 Tests against Wales in Hamilton in 2003, Dan Carter’s debut.
Italy hadn’t beaten the tourists in 11 attempts including a 27-6 scoreline in their last meeting in Christchurch in June.
McAlister and Italy’s former NRL star Craig Gower traded early penalties before the All Blacks got on a roll with a flurry of breakdown penalties from Australian referee Stu Dickinson.
McAlister goaled one to make it 6-3 as the All Blacks were content to kick for position rather than chance their arms.
Flynn scored in the left corner from an overlap.
It was Flynn’s second try in his sixth Test, his first run-on start since the 2003 World Cup.
Another McAlister penalty from an Italy ruck infringement gave the All Blacks a 14-3 halftime lead.
They extended the lead to 17-3 soon after the break when Italy second five-eighth Gonzalo Garcia was sinbinned by Dickinson for an apparent spear tackle at a ruck.
But the All Blacks couldn’t make them pay with 14 men as the Italy pack continued to rumble on.
Gower’s second penalty narrowed it to 17-6 with a quarter remaining as coach Graham Henry rolled on his subs.