The All Blacks withstood a late Springbok surge to win 14-10 in Wellington on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
What drama. What a contest. The Boks came within inches of snatching a rare win in New Zealand, but would be denied at the last by the most underrated of All Black superpowers, namely granitic defence.
The Boks won a kickable penalty in the 76th minute. Captain Jean de Villiers didn’t hesitate in instructing flyhalf Handré Pollard to kick for touch. The Boks had the momentum at that point, but there was no guarantee they would get another shot at victory. Three points would not be enough.
Indeed, the All Blacks had dominated the territorial battle to an overwhelming degree. De Villiers, using all of the experience that comes from playing 100 Test matches, realised that if the Boks were going to score and win the game, it had to be at that instant.
The All Blacks managed to resist the Bok surge, but not without conceding another penalty. They then repelled the second wave of attack, but their weak scrum would give the Boks one final chance to win the game.
Duane Vermeulen, an absolute titan over the course of the 80 minutes and the Man of the Match regardless of the result, broke from the back of the scrum and powered towards the line. Unfortunately for the Boks, the decision to go to the short side in the subsequent phase was a poor one, and replacement Lood de Jager was easily bundled into touch.
The Boks were so close to picking up a rare win in New Zealand. They were so close to handing the All Blacks their first loss since December 2012, and their first defeat in New Zealand since 2009. The Boks were so close to securing the win that would keep them in the Rugby Championship race.
In the end, it was the All Blacks who won ugly. The Boks dominated the set pieces and collisions for much of the game, and the loose trio of Vermeulen, Francois Louw, and Marcell Coetzee bossed the breakdowns.
However, much of this dominance was achieved in their own half. What the All Blacks did consistently well for 80 minutes was kick intelligently, ensuring the game was played in opposition territory.
Pollard obliged with some outstanding touches, and gave the Boks more options on attack. In the 17th minute, a clever inside ball unleashed Cornal Hendricks, who then showed why he is rated so highly by the Bok coaches as a finisher. But this combination of power and panache was the exception rather than the norm, as the Boks battled to win many set pieces in New Zealand’s half of the pitch.
The All Blacks missed Sam Whitelock at the lineouts, and their scrum was under a lot of pressure. While their loose forwards were outplayed at the breakdown, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read would leave an indelible mark on this contest.
Early in the second half, a crosskick by Aaron Cruden found Read on the right wing. The No 8 took the tackle, and then managed to manufacture an outstanding offload to McCaw.
The New Zealand captain’s try in the corner was a massive moment in the contest. It placed the hosts well in control, even though Cruden would miss the conversion.
The All Blacks made a number of errors with ball in hand, and this allowed the Boks to hit back late in the contest. Overall, it was the type of performance that will fuel the belief that the All Blacks are not invincible, and will be beaten sooner rather than later.
That said, they did just enough to deny the Boks this Saturday. The visitors should be commended, but credit should also go to the All Blacks for holding on.
Winning ugly is still winning, and the All Blacks are now well on course to clinch their third successive Rugby Championship title. The Boks showed why they are worthy adversaries this past Saturday, but in the context of the 2014 tournament, they will battle to catch the Kiwis from here.
All Blacks – Try: Richie McCaw. Penalties: Aaron Cruden (2), Beauden Barrett.
Springboks – Try: Cornal Hendricks. Conversion: Handré Pollard. Drop goal: Pollard.
All Blacks – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Jeremy Thrush, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Joe Moody, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Warren Whiteley, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Damian de Allende.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images