By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - New Zealand got their European tour off to a winning start when their so-called second-string side beat the Barbarians 31-22 at Twickenham on Saturday in an entertaining match to mark the 125th anniversary of the New Zealand Rugby Union.
A Barbarians side made up entirely of players from the southern hemisphere took it to the world champions in the non-cap game, combining flashes of their free-flowing attacking tradition with fiercely determined defence to lead 17-10 at halftime, much to the delight of the 62,500 crowd.
Although far from their strongest side, the All Blacks’ 23-man squad captained by 2016 world player of the year Beauden Barrett still boasted more than 400 caps and they hit back impressively with three tries in six second-half minutes to take control.
New Zealand came in to the game on the back of defeat by Australia and were looking to get back on track ahead of their tour games against France and Wales.
But the Barbarians were on the front foot from the start and worked flyhalf Richie Mo’unga over in the corner, then added a second try when Steven Luatua intercepted and ran 70 metres to send George Bridge over.
A brilliant offload by Waisake Naholo put livewire scrumhalf TJ Perenara in for New Zealand’s first try but Australian lock Sam Carter barrelled over for the Barbarians, with Mo’unga converting for a deserved 17-5 lead before another impressive pop out of the tackle by Naholo put Vaea Fifita over in the corner to reduce the deficit to 17-10 at halftime.
The Barbarians were on top for the first 10 minutes of the second half but New Zealand eventually started making inroads and in a flash had surged into the lead. Ngani Laumape smashed through for the first try before Sam Cane and Nathan Harris ran through some porous defence to turn the game around.
The Barbarians regrouped well and went toe-to-toe for the final quarter and finished on a high with a superb last-minute score by fullback David Havili.
"We needed a bit of energy in the second half but a lot of credit has to go to the Barbarians in the first 40," said Barrett, whose last appearance at Twickenham was the 2015 World Cup final victory over Australia.
"After the break we did the simple things really well and built some pressure through phases and we knew if we did that the points would come.
"We were pretty keen to keep to our game plan and not fall into the festival tricks and overall it was a good challenge and we learned a lot from it."
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Pritha Sarkar)