SYDNEY (AP) — Before kickoff in Sydney, there was a sense New Zealand could be run close by Australia in the Rugby Championship opener.
The All Blacks had conceded a drawn series to the British and Irish Lions, the backline was changed again, and off-field issues involving bugging, Aaron Smith, and Jerome Kaino were potentially distracting.
But then Australia kicked off on Saturday, and the All Blacks swept all of those concerns aside as easily as they did the Wallabies with a record 54-34 win.
By halftime they led 40-6, then 54-6 into the new half. That was already their highest score against the Wallabies, eclipsing 51 in 2014 in Auckland. But with utter humiliation achieved, the All Blacks let up, and Australia rallied with four tries to save a little face.
"You can't fault that first half. It was bloody fantastic," All Blacks captain Kieran Read said.
New Zealand scored eight tries, their most in 81 years against the Wallabies, who entered the match with a measure of confidence after a four-week camp. They'd also studied last year's opening loss to New Zealand, when they conceded 42 points and missed 38 tackles, and thought they sorted out that issue.
But the defense was nowhere to be seen as New Zealand sliced through Australia with ease in the first half.
"Our defense wasn't good enough at all," Australia coach Michael Cheika said. "It's not attitude, it's maybe just that little bit of doubt creeps in. When something goes against you early and you have been preparing a certain way, in creeps a little bit of doubt."
The result fomented a deeper crisis within Australian rugby which was already struggling after its worst-ever Super Rugby season in which its teams lost all 26 matches against New Zealand opponents.
The Wallabies hoped to bring some solace to fans who have begun to turn away from the sport because of administrative issues and poor on-field performance. Instead, they compounded the impression that the sport in Australia is in disarray.
New Zealand fullback Damian McKenzie, playing his third test, had creative roles in an early try for flanker Liam Squire and in winger Rieko Ioane's double.
Midfielder Ryan Crotty had his first try after forwards Joe Moody and Brodie Retallick broke the Australian defense, Sonny Bill Williams crashed over in the 34th, and Crotty scored his second try in the last minute of the first half.
The result was certain, and New Zealand took a major step toward retaining the Bledisloe Cup which it has held since 2003.
Its grip on the match became more emphatic when McKenzie scored a brilliant try in the third minute of the second half, then winger Ben Smith added another from a break by Squire.
New Zealand seemed headed for an historic winning margin but the tide turned.
The Wallabies' pride demanded they grab a foothold somewhere, and they came back with tries to winger Curtis Rona on debut, centers Tevita Kuridrani and Kurtley Beale, who was playing his first test since the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and fullback Israel Folau.
The All Blacks might have surpassed 60 points with a late try to Beauden Barrett but the score was overruled by the television official.
"We just took our foot off the throat a bit," Read said. "We'll take the positives and there's obviously things to learn from. It's not often you come here and put 50 points on the Wallabies."
The return match is next Saturday in Dunedin, and the Wallabies need to win in New Zealand for the first time since 2001 to keep the Bledisloe Cup series alive.
Cheika still had faith his side could do it. He said he wasn't going to make many changes.
"It comes down to a deep belief between players," he said. "We've got to acknowledge what we did wrong first of all and then say, 'OK, we've got to fix that thing or those two things or whatever they might be,' and then go to it and do it.
"This is a roadblock in front of us, and it's going to knock us down but it's not going to stop us."