- Associated Press - Friday, October 9, 2015

NEWCASTLE, England (AP) - New Zealand pulled away in the last half-hour to cruise to a 47-9 win over Tonga on Friday, but headed into the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals without a complete 80-minute performance in the pool stage.

Tonga was only 14-6 behind and causing problems for the All Blacks before momentum swung when winger Nehe Milner-Skudder crossed in the 53rd minute for the first of his two tries at St. James’ Park.

New Zealand scored five tries in the second half - and seven in total - for a fourth straight win to top Pool C. Fittingly, the last try was scored by center Ma’a Nonu on his 100th appearance in the iconic black jersey.

There’s plenty of room for improvement for the defending champions, though, after a first half when their scrum was pushed around and their handling was sloppy. New Zealand also appeared vulnerable at stages in its first three wins, over Argentina, Namibia, and Georgia.

“We’ve had to work hard through the pool stage and that hasn’t been a bad thing for us,” Hansen said. “We had a plan and we stuck to that plan. Now we have to wait to see if it works.”

The All Blacks will play either France or Ireland in the quarterfinals. Hansen said he didn’t care which team it was.

“How you are playing at the moment means nothing,” Hansen said. “What’s happening now isn’t relevant. What happens next week, will be.”

The Tongans exited the tournament with just one win in the pool - and with a fifth straight loss to the All Blacks - and their fourth-place finish means they will have to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. But they rattled their illustrious opponents in Newcastle.

New Zealand’s scrum gave away four first-half penalties - including two when they packed down with seven men after captain Kieran Read’s yellow card - and their error count was high. Winger Waisake Naholo spilled the ball from Dan Carter’s pass when faced with a 3-on-1 in the left corner.

The Tongans also found some joy with breaks through flimsy New Zealand defense close to the ruck. At halftime, the Tongans enjoyed more territory (55 percent), needed to make fewer tackles, earned more penalties, and had an extra man on the field - but still found themselves 14-3 down.

“The plan wasn’t to wait for the All Blacks to attack us. We wanted to attack them,” said Tonga captain Nili Latu, who likely played his final test. “In the first half, we took it to them.”

This New Zealand team will never lose its ruthless edge, though, and the first try by fullback Ben Smith was clinical, with great handling from Milner-Skudder, Sam Cane, and Conrad Smith in a narrow channel from a blindside move.

Prop Tony Woodcock’s try was at the other end of the scale, the prop barging over from close range after a delayed pass from scrumhalf Aaron Smith. Woodcock went off in the 43rd minute with an injured right hamstring, which could spell the end of his career after 118 tests.

Tonga’s only first-half points came from Kurt Morath’s penalty, but the Pacific Islanders should have added more in the final minutes after Read was sin-binned for bringing down a driving maul. Four scrums followed near the tryline - the All Blacks were penalized at two of them - but no penalty try was awarded.

“We didn’t get a reward for it. I’ll leave it to your judgment whether it was a penalty try,” Tonga coach Mana Otai told reporters.

Morath cut the lead to 14-6 with a 49th-minute penalty, but two tries from Milner-Skudder hit the Tongans hard. He barged through opposite winger Fetu’u Vainikolo for his first, then ran onto Beauden Barrett’s grubber kick to ground in the opposite corner.

After that, it was a procession as Tonga tired and the All Blacks’ bench rammed home the advantage.

Sonny Bill Williams and Cane touched down and Nonu was on the shoulder of Milner-Skudder to complete the scoring with four minutes left.

Nonu’s try was the only one that Carter didn’t convert.

The result lifted Argentina into the quarterfinals, and confirmed Georgia as third in the pool and an automatic qualifier for the 2019 World Cup.

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