TWICKENHAM -- In the end it went just about to script. New Zealand emerged with the 31-22 victory, the start they wanted to their end-of-year tour, but not without an almighty first-half scare from the Barbarians who threw the whole weight of their famous heritage behind a performance which saw them head into the half-time interval in the lead.
But the All Blacks have been here before. Even though they fielded an inexperienced side, featuring just one nailed-on starter in Beauden Barrett, the thought was they would ease past a Barbarians side boasting few household names, and no northern hemisphere representation. It was in effect a non-capped trial for the All Blacks hopefuls who want to force their way into the top echelon of the world champions' squad as they plan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The All Blacks' star performer was Waisake Naholo. Already well embedded within the New Zealand ranks, he caused all sorts of havoc and showed the subtlety to his game with a delightful first-half offload for TJ Perenara's try. The Barbarians were at this stage already 10-0 to the good, after Steven Luatua -- he of the 15 All Blacks caps but now playing for Bristol in the Championship -- helped tee up tries for Richie Mo'unga and George Bridge.
The All Blacks at this stage were struggling for a foothold, and the 17-10 score in favour of the bunch of players thrown together earlier this week was fair. Kwagga Smith, the Sevens specialist, was their star man with Richie Mo'unga providing a calm head at fly-half. Mo'unga is one of five players in the Baabaas' ranks who will join the All Blacks' squad for the rest of their northern hemisphere tour and he did his claims no harm with an assured performance, working well in tandem with the ageless Andy Ellis.
The Barbarians and New Zealand have a rich history. Memories inevitably drift back to that 1973 game where the Baabaas, featuring a number of the famous 1971 New Zealand-conquering Lions heroes, saw off the All Blacks, scoring arguably the greatest try ever seen on a rugby field. Phil Bennett and Sir Gareth Edwards were both in attendance at Twickenham, looking proud and nostalgic as they reflected on the first half where the Barbarians did their heritage proud, where all the razzle-dazzle was from the men in black and white hoops, rather than their fearsome foes.
When you have moves like Kwagga, you are always going to have a shot but the basic format of the Barbarians and concept means they came here as heavy, heavy underdogs. The All Blacks, featuring six players with fewer than 10 caps in their starting XV, were clearly using this as a chance to test depth ahead of 2019 and give Beauden Barrett an opportunity to captain the team for the first time, but they were subpar in the first half, lacking any cohesion.
That understanding eventually returned in the second 40. The introduction of Sam Cane swung the tie in the All Blacks' favour while Naholo and Ngani Laumape -- the latter impressed against the Lions in June -- caused havoc. Laumape did his stock no harm with an impressive, abrasive performance while David Havili was solid at fullback.
Vaea Fifita remains someone to keep an eye on -- he is one of the world's finest back-rows in the loose, and even casual observers in Twickenham would no doubt have known about him from his remarkable effort against Argentina in this year's Rugby Championship. While Luatua was showing the All Blacks what they miss at blindside as he intercepted passes left, right and centre before eventually succumbing to injury, Fifita showcased why he will be worth his weight in World Cup gold come 2019. His ability to offer a lineout option, be effective in the tight areas and also boast pace to rival most backs means he will be integral to the All Blacks squad by the time they arrive in Japan for the next global gathering.
The true relevance of this match from an All Blacks perspective will only be quantifiable over the next couple of years. Those still in the early stages of their international career will reflect on this match where they were stretched by the expansive Barbarians but managed to get themselves out of trouble with intelligent, straight-running play in the second half to end this as a contest.
But though they fell to New Zealand, the Barbarians again proved why they are so important to rugby. The ever-rampaging financial beast of rugby risks leaving behind the game's fine institutions. While there is a quadrennial debate over the importance, or even relevance, of the Lions in 21st century rugby, so to is there an annual question mark over the Barbarians. But while pounds, dollars, euro and yen continue to become increasingly the lifeblood and barometer of professional rugby, the Barbarians provided their own timely reminder that they too are far from an anachronism.
A few would have come into this game with a cynicism over how worthy a game this was. By the end of it, they would have been in no doubt -- this was a brilliant way to start the end-of-year internationals.