The All Blacks defeated the Boks 27-20 overnight in a predictably physical clash in the Rugby Championship. It was classic 2011-15 All Blacks: a fairly unremarkable performance, coupled with a couple of well-taken tries, getting them over the line.
The Boks dominated the match for 60 minutes and had every chance to win. They faded heavily in the last 20, looking utterly demoralised and unable to seize a game that was within reach right up until the final play.
South Africa had the best of the early play, swamping a ruck only to (correctly) be penalised for going off their feet. Debutant 10 Lima Sopoaga knocked over a tricky kick from the left of the uprights, 40 metres out, to take the lead.
Soon afterwards, however, a clever kick from Ruan Pienaar saw Israel Dagg offer Kieran Read a hospital pass on his own 22. The Boks poured in, Bismarck du Plessis at the forefront, and the turnover was effected. The ball quickly went to the left to Jesse Kriel, who cleverly turned it inside to a steaming Willie Le Roux running in from fullback and going in for a sweet try. Le Roux must have run fully 70 metres to hit the pass just so. 7-3 South Africa.
The All Blacks then went on the front foot for the first time in the match. Aaron Smith took a quick tap 15m out, but hit Conrad Smith straight in the noggin from the pass. Not Conrad’s only error, as it would turn out.
The Boks were playing simple, grinding rugby, and putting the ABs under plenty of pressure. An offside penalty was converted by Pollard for 10-3. The game went back and forth, with the Boks having 60% of possession. Both 10s then missed penalties, Sopoaga’s considerably the easier.
The weary Bok behemoths were already looking to the sheds when Aaron Smith put up a great box kick on 39 minutes. Hendricks dealt with it well, but the AB pack rolled over him. Sopoaga then smelt a gap and accelerated beautifully upfield. Bryan Habana couldn’t resist coming in to help Le Roux cover the flying debutant, and Sopoaga basketball passed it over to Ben Smith, who ran around under the posts.
10-10 at the break, an intense half of footy.
The weird thing about this Bok team is that half the time they look a super conservative outfit intent on carting it up through forwards positioned much closer to the ruck than, say, the ABs’ forwards, or the Wallabies’. At other times they show how effective they can be when running the ball. Straight after half time, we saw one of the latter times.
The ball came to Handre Pollard, who did a great impersonation of an antipodean 10, ball in two hands, players in motion, taking it to the line, dummy to the switch, dummy to the open, and then a dead flat ball to Jesse Kriel running a sexy straight line. As the replays showed, there simply was no hole for Kriel to hit: he ran all of one man’s body width between Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. It was just the timing of the pass that made it. Conrad had decided that Kriel was just too flat to get the ball any more, leaving him looking like a turnstile. As was a real feature in this game, the second line of defence was non-existent and Kriel ran over for the try from 35 metres out. The crowd went ballistic. 17-10
Almost immediately, however, the All Blacks went on the attack and spread it to the left where Dane Coles ran through a massive gap in a poorly aligned Bok defence, some 25 metres out. Again, Le Roux’s effort on a hooker (even a quick one) was awful, and Coles levelled the scores.
The Boks needed to constrict the game and get back to the forward battle – and that’s exactly what they did. A maul from a lineout was brought down; the next was offset and de Jager did well to spin, reach out, and put the ball down all of an inch or two from the line. The TMO call was correct, but for the second time in two weeks a blade of grass was all that was in it for them.
The ensuing scrum saw the Boks get a penalty, which Pollard knocked over for 20-17.
Then came a sensational passage of play. The Boks ran it out from their 22, but turned it over for the very impressive Piutau, who passed it to a man in green. The ball came back to Le Roux to clear, but he simply pinned his ears back and ran through a melee of black to break away. The surging Le Roux found Pienaar who chipped into the 22. The ball could have bounced anywhere but Kieran Read, utterly alone against the two Boks at the back, got hands to it to stymy the breakout. He knocked on, however, and the Boks mounted the pressure inside New Zealand’s 22.
As per usual, the ABs gave away a cynical penalty – this one a blatant play on the 9 by Sam Whitelock, on for the very poor James Broadhurst. There was only one choice for the ref and the yellow card came out, much to the crowd’s delight.
With a penalty just to the left of the posts, the Boks could have taken the 3. They chose the scrum against 7 forwards instead. First scrum: penalty green, with Eben Etzebeth held up over the line from the ensuing advantage. Schalk Burger chose to pack down again. Second scrum: big pressure but no penalty, the ball comes short a few plays later to debutant Vincent Koch who loses it cold a few metres out.
Then came the moment that would deliver the match to the All Blacks and compromise it for all the fans. Jannie du Plessis had come off at half-time with a knee issue. Now his replacement at 3 Koch had to leave with blood pouring from his forehead, which ended up being a permanent sub. Trevor Nyakane, the designated loose-head replacement, but a guy who started repeatedly for the Bulls at 3 this year, came on. The referee Jerome Garces – much to everyone’s bemusement – calls for uncontested scrums. According to the South African commentators it was the Bok management who did not designate Nyakane a qualified tight-head… but, if so, that decision was downright insane. With 7 minutes more with an extra forward, Kieran Read packing in the second row, and an AB scrum 5 metres out… In any case, for the next 15 minutes or so, we were treated to uncontested scrums between the All Blacks and Springboks at Ellis Park – what a farce. The whole match immediately lost some lustre, like letting air out of balloon.
From here, the Boks looked demoralised and spent. There was a sense of the inevitable about an All Black comeback. A pick and drive by replacement Malakai Fekitoa saw him sprint 50 metres upfield, looking more bemused than anything. Pat Lambie made a great tackle all alone at the back – the only good fullback’s tackle we saw all day.
The men in black began to mount the pressure, with Piutau going close in the left corner and then Brodie Retallick held up.
Finally, it came. From a five metre lineout, the ABs feigned to maul it from a throw to the back, with the prop at the front also making a lot of noise. Amazingly, the play called for the designated ripper – that man Richie McCaw – to run into the massive gap in the middle of the lineout and take a flat throw. The captain powered over a helpless Pienaar and that was that.
With the game still in the balance at 24-20, Bryan Habana lost his cool and dived around the wrong side of an All Black ruck. Blatant. The contrast with last week’s Wallabies – composed, never say die – was stark. Sopoaga knocked over the 3 to close it out, 27-20.
This was a pretty underwhelming performance from the All Blacks, though with many experimental selections. In particular, Brussouw, Bismarck, Francois Louw, and even Jannie all gained clean turnovers at the ruck; David Pocock take note. The issues for the Boks were (a) their inability to space effectively and acknowledge the width of the park, both in attack and defence (b) their inability to bring their awesome wingers into the game.
Man of the Match
Hard to go past Charles Piutau, who was dangerous every time he got the ball. Probably booked his ticket to England, despite his pending move to Ulster pissing the AB management off big time. Sopoaga gave the NZ selectors food for thought. The other big winner was Luke Romano – James Broadhurst simply didn’t look up to test rugby and got monstered more than once.
Jesse Kriel was strong for the Boks, while Lood de Jager again looks like a great in the making (heard it here first). What a player, and his combination with Etzebeth was hugely effective. In the backs, Handre Pollard looks like the least South African 10 I’ve ever seen and took on the line with venom, while Damien de Allende had a great first half, barrelling through defenders like they weren’t there.
Moment of the Match
The start of uncontested scrums. The Boks were only slightly dominant in that area, but against 7 guys, 5 metres out…