The All Blacks bid farewell to coach Steve Hansen and captain Kieran Read with a 40-17 victory over Wales at Tokyo Stadium on Friday, claiming the one World Cup prize that no team sets out to win — third place.
Winger Ben Smith grabbed a brace and Joe Moody, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty and Richie Mo’unga also crossed as New Zealand rebounded from their semi-final loss to England and extended their 66-year winning streak over Wales to 31 tests.
Both teams came to play and Wales, also saying farewell to coach Warren Gatland, ran the ball at every opportunity to score tries through fullback Hallam Amos and Josh Adams — a Welsh record seventh of the tournament for the winger.
South Africa, who beat Wales in the other semi-final last weekend, face off against England in the final at Yokohama International Stadium on Saturday.
“It was just important we came back and honoured the jersey and the fans and put that one last week behind us,” said Hansen.
“We’ve played good footy throughout, but one bad game and you’re out. That’s knockout footy. Really proud of the boys.”
While pundits and fans had questioned the relevance of a third-placed playoff, both sides said the game was an opportunity to bury the demons of their semi-final losses.
It was also still a test between traditional rivals, with the All Blacks boasting a winning streak against Wales that stretches back to 1953.
Read and fellow veterans Crotty, Smith and Sonny Bill Williams, who were all playing their final games for the All Blacks, were superb as New Zealand built a 35-10 lead early in the second half.
The All Blacks threatened from the outset and scored a fifth-minute try from prop Moody, an example of how they can play when their ball handling and running into space clicks.
Fullback Barrett extended the lead to 14-0 less than eight minutes later when he took an inside pass from scrumhalf Aaron Smith before Wales had their best period of the match.
Gatland’s side abandoned the dour game they had played against South Africa last week and were prepared to spread the ball wide, with fullback Hallam Amos ghosting on to a long pass after 15 phases to give Wales their first try.
“Our boys never gave up and tried to play some good rugby but probably a game too far for us,” said Gatland. “I’ve loved my time in Wales but that era’s over now and I’m looking forward to the next challenge.”
Rhys Patchell added a penalty to reduce the gap to 14-10 before Ben Smith crossed twice, first by fending off Adams and then racing away outside the defenders after a long pass from his scrumhalf, to give the All Blacks a 28-10 halftime lead.
Crotty crossed after another Williams offload two minutes into the second half while Smith added what he thought was a third try, before referee Wayne Barnes called it back for a knock-on earlier in the buildup.
Wales then built back into the game and Adams burrowed over after another sustained and controlled period of play to eclipse Shane Williams’s six-try haul at the 2007 tournament.
“We tried to play a bit but the score probably didn’t reflect that,” said Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones. “I think most of the squad earned their first caps under (Gatland), his legacy is a lot bigger than one game.”