By coming to Ellis Park and beating the Springboks 38-27 in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship on Saturday night, the All Blacks made an emphatic statement and confirmed they remain the world’s best team by some distance.
Richie McCaw’s team scored five tries to four to win with something to spare, though it was nip and tuck for much of the way as the Boks repeatedly raised their supporters’ hopes only to reduce them in the next instant with mistakes and soft moments that ultimately cost them any chance of winning.
The All Blacks effectively met the objective of winning the Championship when Beauden Barrett went through a host of ineffectual tackles, a major problem for the Boks on the night, for the fourth try that secured the bonus point they needed to make sure of the title. But they will have been pleased to put the seal on their superiority over their opponents by going on from there to win the game.
New Zealand have always enjoyed a loose game more than South Africa has, and the five tries the Kiwis scored were testament to how much they love playing against an opponent that tries to play a quick game and thus makes the mistakes that they can feast on.
Perhaps the Boks would have been better off adopting a tighter, more methodical approach, but then in mitigation it has to be remembered that French referee Romain Poite, with his eccentric performance in Auckland a few weeks back, set them an almost insurmountable mountain to climb.
Perhaps the Boks deserve credit for trying to chase the target they were set. There was no denying was an incredible game to watch, with the ball being in play for much longer than normally is the case in a test match as both teams set about playing positive rugby.
And while it is tempting to ruminate on what might have been had the Boks just been chasing a win in this game, maybe that is just wishful thinking, for the reality is that these All Blacks are just better than the Boks and would probably have won regardless.
The Boks did let themselves down, for while they played enough constructive attacking rugby to score the needed four tries, which meant they had the bonus point with more than a quarter of the game remaining, they almost completely neglected their defence.
But the All Blacks have to be given credit for scoring what is effectively their third successive win over the Springboks on the Highveld in what could be called big occasion games – at Soccer City in 2010, again there last year, and now here at the most intimidating of all venues for a New Zealander and one which has massive history when it comes to matches between these teams.
The All Blacks have scored four successive wins against the Boks now since the last World Cup, and you just can’t argue against that. And winning at Ellis Park, when the Boks were so hyped up and so were their fans, can only make it extra special for them.
A SOFT MOMENT
For a neutral, it must have been a thrilling match to watch, as it had everything, with yellow cards again featuring, although on this occasion both of them were brandished at New Zealanders – Liam Messam early in the first half and then Ben Franks later on. Unfortunately for the Boks they couldn’t quite make them count like the New Zealanders did at Eden Park.
There were also two cruel injury blows to Bryan Habana halfway through the first half and then Willem Alberts just before halftime that didn’t help the hosts.
Habana was sublime on the Springbok left wing in the first quarter. He scored the first Bok try after 18 minutes after a strong surge through the middle and pass from No 8 Duane Vermeulen, and then later he was the recipient of a freakishly good pass through the tackle from Francois Louw before putting the ball onto his boot and then chasing it down for his second try.
At that stage, not long beyond the 20 minute mark, the Boks were leading 15-7 and the massive win and four-try bonus point required looked like it was on. But they had already suffered their first debilitating soft moment, which came immediately after Morne Steyn had put them into a 3-0 lead after 11 minutes by slotting a penalty awarded in front of the posts.
The Boks had been doing most of the pressurizing up until then, and were playing the game in the Kiwi half, but Juandre Kruger dropped the restart, thus gifting the All Blacks possession which they used by weaving across the field and back through an ineffectual and disorganised South African defensive system.
When Ben Smith went over it was a try that just looked way too easily in the creation, and was a warning to the Boks – any gifts will be gratefully accepted and used to good effect!
The second All Black try, to cut the eight point gap the Boks had built up, was also a gift, for there is no other way to describe the metres that All Black lock Sam Whitelock was given to surge through in setting up the momentum that eventually led to Liam Messam scoring.
And then on the stroke of halftime, after earlier the Boks had wasted several scoring chances during a period when they were camped in the All Black 22 and eschewed kickable penalties, JJ Engelbrecht ended up getting isolated and it ended up with the visitors again carrying the ball through several phases and many ineffectual tackling attempts to score their third try.
That made it 21-15 to the All Blacks at halftime. A try late in the half is always a psychological blow, and by then Alberts had joined Habana in leaving the field injured. In his case it looked a serious neck injury.
Siya Kolisi came on and played well, putting in a few stupendous tackles, one of which saved a certain try as Ma’a Nonu pressed for the line, but it wasn’t really replacing like with like, as Alberts is the chief Bok ball carrier among the forwards and also the man tasked with stopping opposing momentum with his tackles.
Not that the Boks necessarily failed to benefit from the change, for they did look more mobile after halftime, and attacked strongly in the third quarter.
Indeed, they led 27-24, with the bonus point banked and the All Blacks still short of No 4, as the hour mark arrived following a great try to Jean de Villiers, who just piled headlong through two defenders after Eben Etzebeth had taken a long ball at an attacking lineout, and an earlier try from Willie le Roux.
But that was the end of the night for the Boks. Barrett went over soon after that, the situation that led to his try being yet another mistake, this time Zane Kirchner kicking the ball straight into touch when the ball was carried back into his 22. That failure to exit cost the Boks, as did their off-night with their defensive game.
South Africa – Tries: Bryan Habana (2), Willie le Roux, Jean de Villiers. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2). Penalty: Steyn.
New Zealand – Tries: Ben Smith, Liam Messam (2), Beauden Barrett, Kieran Read. Conversions: Aaron Cruden (3), Barrett (2). Penalty: Barrett.