The growth spurt that the Springbok forwards needed for their team to be competitive was forthcoming but sadly it was the game plan that was responsible for the All Blacks taking a vice-like grip on The Castle Rugby Championship race with a 21-11 win at the Forsythe-Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.
This was by far the most compelling Bok performance in the competition, and the 10-point winning margin flattered an All Black team that was under the kosh for much of the way and frequently creaked under the pressure that was applied.
Sadly though for South African fans the periods of forward dominance only highlighted the bankruptcy of the game-plan. So much good ball was hoisted onto a New Zealand back three that were always equal to the task and punished the Boks in the telling moment of the first half. And then there were the occasions when the ball was just kicked when it should have been run.
Morne Steyn was the main culprit but he was playing a game-plan he was selected to play. What he definitely didn’t get right though was the one facet of rugby to which he undeniably owes his place in the team -- the goal-kicking.
The Boks trailed 5-3 at halftime and yet such were the opportunities that were wasted and their dominance of possession and territory that they could easily have been 15 points up. One area where the Kiwis were horrible in the first half was in their tidying up around the fringes, and the Boks created a great try-scoring chance in the fourth minute as wing Francois Hougaard punished All Black untidiness around a ruck by kicking the ball ahead.
Skipper Jean de Villiers was up to chase and cleverly kept the ball infield, and then following a set up and quick ruck the ball was spun down the line only for Bryan Habana to knock it on near the corner flag. That was the first chance wasted, and while Habana made up for it later with a brilliant individualistic try, it was a crucial moment in the game as the Boks would have gained massive confidence from a five pointer at that stage.
They were the first on the board when Morne Steyn slotted a penalty in the 17th minute, but it was to be Steyn’s only success out of five kicks at goal, and while Frans Steyn also missed two long-range attempts, it was the missed kickable shots from the flyhalf that really hurt the South Africans. The last was on the stroke of halftime, and given how the Boks had dominated, the New Zealanders must have been astounded at their luck as they took the break.
There were several aspects of the Bok game that were immeasurably improved on previous weeks. As always when the All Blacks come into view, there was no lack of passion, and the aggressive, physical Bok defensive line got into the Kiwi faces and made this by far their most difficult assignment of 2012.
MOMENT OF MAGIC
The set-phases were strong, with the Kiwis' problems at lineout time showing signs of resurfacing -- they were very lucky not to concede a try with a doozy lineout throw near their own line in the last minutes -- and the scrum, after some a messy start with free kicks being conceded, was rock steady for most of the game.
But where the Bok big men stepped up was mostly just in their presence and influence, with the mauling off the lineouts posing many problems for their opponents. Let it be said too that Francois Louw’s selection at openside flank made a huge difference, and there was more quick ball from the rucks than there has been for a while.
Piri Weepu did help the Boks out by having a bit of a shocker before he was replaced at halftime and the Boks won quite a lot of turn-over ball either at the recycles or around the recycles during the first 40 minutes.
However all that effort must only have added to the frustration of the hard-working pack, who no sooner had they engineered the first points through some good mauling, saw that undone by a poor kick onto All Black fullback Israel Dagg that ended up being a gift for the hosts.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer says it is only in the movies that players catch the ball in international rugby inside their own half and end up creating tries scored at the other end, so maybe it was a movie I was watching, and not a telecast. But what the All Blacks did to secure their first five points did look suspiciously like what Meyer says doesn’t happen in reality, with Dagg featuring several times before finally using his pace to finish off down the right flank.
The set-up to the try came off that thing that is so rare in South African rugby outside of the Sharks, the off-load, with first lock Sam Whitelock on the halfway line and then No 8 Kieran Read producing flashes of brilliance that paid off with the 20th minute try.
The last time the Boks were in Dunedin it was a brilliant solo effort from Ricky Januarie that won it and that memory would have spurred South African fans into thinking something special might be in the offing when Habana produced his moment of magic. It came as the 50th minute of the match neared, Habana taking the ball from a disjointed lineout and ghosting through a stunned New Zealand defence before kicking ahead and gathering to score in the corner.
Morne Steyn’s goalkicking was so poor on the day that few would have expected him to convert from touch, so it was no surprise when he missed, and perhaps even less of a surprise when he was replaced on the hour mark, by which time Aaron Cruden had drawn the teams level at 8-all with the first of his two penalties.
Johan Goosen should probably have come on at halftime, and given his confidence and the difference it appeared to make to the Bok back-play, it is probably not stretching it to suggest the Boks would have won had Meyer been brave enough to choose him from the start.
Unfortunately though Goosen’s arrival on the field coincided with the 61st minute solo try that All Black replacement scrumhalf Aaron Smith scored to put his team back into a lead they were never to relinquish and for all the time he was on the Boks were chasing the game. And winning became an even bigger obstacle when Bok replacement front-ranker Dean Greyling was carded for a cynical attack on Richie McCaw at a breakdown, forcing the Boks to play half the last quarter with 14 men.
A penalty from Cruden on the hooter denied the Boks a bonus point, which on the night was the least they deserved from a match they really should have won.
New Zealand –Tries: Israel Dagg, Aaron Smith. Conversion: Aaron Cruden. Penalties: Aaron Cruden(3).
South Africa –Try: Bryan Habana. Penalties: Morne Steyn, Johan Goosen.