The All Blacks hung on for a 20-18 victory against the Springboks in the World Cup semi-final on Saturday, reports JON CARDINELLI at Twickenham.
Some will view this as a moral victory for the Boks. To come within three points of felling the greatest team in Test history might be seen as a positive.
And yet the Boks will be hurting. They blew a golden opportunity to win this game and advance to the World Cup final. As it is, they are out of the title race. On this occasion, they have nobody else but themselves to blame.
The Boks will lament their inconsistent lineout, and two missed opportunities in particular. They had a great opportunity to forge ahead when they were 15m out from the All Blacks tryline in the 72nd minute.
The Boks won the lineout, but could not deal with the All Blacks’ counter-maul. They were eventually turned over, and the chance to milk the penalty that would catapult them into the final was lost.
They had another chance to set the maul and win a penalty almost immediately. This time, All Blacks No 5 Sam Whitelock beat the Bok jumper to the ball and secured the turnover. From there, the All Blacks controlled both territory and possession, and clinched the result.
There was a calm yet dangerous air about the Boks in the moments before kick-off. The stadium exploded in fireworks and noise as the two teams took to the field. The capacity crowd buzzed as New Zealand laid down their famed Kapa o’ Pango challenge.
Throughout the war dance, the Boks stood rooted to their own 10m line. Some had predicted that the South Africans would evoke the spirit of the France side that pushed the All Blacks in the 2011 World Cup final. On that occasion, France responded to the haka by marching together in a V-shape until they were at the halfway line. France followed that up with a physical performance for the ages.
The Boks’ crash-bash mentality was underscored by no small measure of composure. They shut down the All Blacks’ space effectively. They picked their moments to compete at the breakdowns.
Francois Louw, so workmanlike in the Boks’ previous World Cup matches, certainly stood up when his team needed him most. The openside flanker made some important turnovers at the ruck during the first stanza. This, along with the Boks’ collective dominance at the gainline, limited the All Blacks’ momentum.
Yet, the All Blacks were just as composed. They stuck to their game plan. They attempted to the lift the tempo and tire the big Bok forwards. New Zealand have won so many clashes in the past via a second-half surge. They had every reason to feel confident about yet another victory in this fashion.
The Boks did brilliantly to match the All Blacks’ famed kicking game in the first half. Willie le Roux was flawless under the high ball, diffusing several Dan Carter bombs. Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen chased hard and won many an aerial contest. Habana got the better of Nehe Milner-Skudder on several occasions.
For all their physical dominance, the Boks did not spend enough time down in All Blacks’ territory. When they did, they made it count through the boot of Handré Pollard, who goaled four penalties in the first half.
The Boks defence was breached just once in the opening 40 minutes. Thereafter, the green wall withstood each and every assault. The All Blacks would often resort to grubbering for the corners. This tactic secured territory, but cost them possession.
They suffered a significant setback in the 38th minute when Jerome Kaino was sin-binned for a cynical infringement. Jérôme Garcès had been hard on the All Blacks at the breakdown, and when Kaino played the ball from an offside position when South Africa were on attack, the referee lost his patience.
The Boks went to the break with a 12-7 lead as well as the benefit of knowing they would spend the first eight minutes of the second half with a one-man advantage. They should have rammed that advantage home.
Pollard kicked a penalty that was cancelled out by a Carter drop goal in the 46th minute. The rain continued to pelt down and the All Blacks continued to hammer away at the Bok defence. The absence of Kaino did little to dent their confidence and intent.
The pressure and time in South African territory would eventually tell on a tiring defence. Ma’a Nonu set up Beauden Barrett for an easy run in at the left-hand corner while Carter nailed a great touchline conversion to stretch New Zealand’s lead to 17-12.
To make matters worse for South Africa, Habana was yellow-carded for a cynical infringement in the build-up to that try. As he trudged off the field, the disconsolate expression on his face said it all. The Boks had just suffered a potentially game-costing setback.
Somehow the Boks managed to concede only three points in Habana’s absence. When the winger returned from the sin bin, they trailed the All Blacks by just five points with 17 minutes remaining.
The players were out on their feet on that point. They scrapped and fought, but there was little power behind their figurative punches. Collectively, they began to stagger. It seemed as if they were one blow away from being knocked out.
By contrast, the All Blacks grew more powerful as the climax approached. They played harder. They played smarter. They had the Boks exactly where they wanted them.
Replacement flyhalf Pat Lambie narrowed the deficit to two points in the 70th minute. The scoreboard suggested that the South Africans had a chance in the final 10 minutes.
Then the Boks found themselves within 15m of the All Blacks' tryline and in possession. They had the chance to win the game.
But at that crucial moment, they failed to bring the necessary physicality and accuracy. They were turned over, and the opportunity to shock the All Blacks and advance in this tournament was lost.
The Boks will now play the loser of the second semi-final in the third-place play-off next Friday.
All Blacks – Tries: Jerome Kaino, Beauden Barrett. Conversions: Dan Carter (2). Penalty: Carter. Drop goal: Carter.
Springboks – Penalties: Handré Pollard (5). Pat Lambie.
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez (c), 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Jannie du Plessis, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP Photo