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George Bridge runs into frame for an All Blacks start in World Cup opener

By Patrick McKendry, NZ Herald

Scoring four tries is a heck of a way to make a statement.

Now left wing George Bridge, one of the All Black stars against Tonga, must be close to starting against the Springboks in his team’s first game of the World Cup.

Assuming Beauden Barrett reverts to fullback to allow Richie Mo’unga to return to first five-eighth, the right wing for the match in Yokohama in just under a fortnight will also be of interest.

Do Steve Hansen and company roll the dice on Sevu Reece, or will they prefer the reliability of Ben Smith, who looked sharper and more confident on his return amidst the greater space the Tongans provided at Waikato Stadium?

Smith is probably the leading contender, but while Reece appears to be a wildcard element capable of turning a match with a piece of brilliance, his Crusaders teammate Bridge is emerging as a relentlessly consistent finisher who is, crucially, in excellent form.

The selectors may now feel they can’t do without him on the field at the start of a big match.

The same, unfortunately for Rieko Ioane, cannot be said of the Blues left wing who missed his opportunity to respond in Hamilton due to a tight calf.

Bridge scored three of his four tries in the second half, and had his fourth inside 57 minutes. Marc Ellis’s record of six tries scored against Japan in the 1995 World Cup was there for the taking but the 24-year-old said there were no thoughts of matching it or going one better. “I didn’t know that to be honest,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about that – not at all.”

What Bridge was thinking about during the 92-7 demolition of Tonga in the afternoon sun was a ruthless adherence to the basics, something he and his teammates did extremely well given what is just around the corner. They leave for their World Cup defence in Japan tomorrow.

“There was a massive emphasis on the big boys fronting up and trying to win that physical battle,” Bridge said. “From there I think our skillset was really well executed and so there was space out wide for me. It turned out all right.

“The mindset – we talked about that a lot, it being the last warm-up match before the World Cup. You could have gone into it lighthearted. We wanted to be on, ruthless, to win the physical battle. The big boys did that really well and when you win that it makes it a lot easier to execute how we want to play.

“I’ve been fortunate to get a bit of game time over the last couple of weeks and I’ve just been trying to make the most of it. I’ve been reasonably happy with how it’s been going. It will be different over there, though, there will be a lot of pressure on our shoulders.

“I’m pretty fortunate with the people around who allow me to play my own game. I guess it does give me confidence. That’s a major thing they ask for – to play my own game and to be confident going into the game.

“It wasn’t really planned,” he said of the restart from replacement first five-eighth Josh Ioane which fell into his arms for his remarkable second try.

“Sammy Whitelock actually mentioned it before the kick-off because the wind was holding [the ball] up. He thought they might misjudge it a little bit. I just tried to do my role there and chase the kick. It just fell into my arms.”

For Josh Ioane, on the field in a test for the first time after sitting on the reserves bench in his first against Argentina, playing the entirety of the second half and starting with a try assist was a dream come true.

“It was fast and physical,” he said. “The boys didn’t go light on me, there were a few tackles that got me good. I enjoyed it.”

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and was republished with permission.

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George Bridge runs into frame for an All Blacks start in World Cup opener