The Springboks were good against the All Blacks in Wellington without ever being excellent, writes MARK KEOHANE.
If the Boks were that good in defeat, then what does it make of the All Blacks as victors?
The All Blacks have now won their last 36 Test matches at home – a world record – and Richie McCaw’s team continues to break record after record.
Yet the focus is rarely on their qualities; only on how vulnerable they are, how beatable they are and how they simply are not that good.
Why is it so hard to applaud a team that has created something special? Why the envy? Why, in some instances the absolute hatred?
I thought the Springboks were outstanding in the first 40 minutes, but that the All Blacks did enough to control the Test until the 70th minute, if not necessarily ever have the comfort that they were in control.
The Boks, with a bit of luck, more composure and better decision-making, could have sneaked it in the final minute. They won the turnover scrum and Duane Vermeulen made huge metres to give the Boks the attacking option a metre out.
But the ball went towards the touchline when it should have gone infield and Lood de Jager was bundled into touch.
The All Blacks nearly made a mess of their lineout, but Richie McCaw cleaned up and Aaron Smith made sure the ball was cleared into touch.
McCaw was mighty again. He is one of the great warriors of the game and what makes him that impressive is the motivation to keep winning. He was into his 131st Test and despite having lost just 13 Tests, he plays like one seeking his first Test win.
It was a special night in Wellington and the game was reminiscent of the great battles between these two teams. Statistically few could argue this is still a rivalry with the Boks having won just 14 of the last 52 Tests, but the 80 minutes in Wellington screamed rivalry. It had all the ingredients of those legendary Test matches played between the two countries in the 88 times they’ve done battle.
Heyneke Meyer, as Springbok coach, has now lost five in succession against the All Blacks. Three of those have been in New Zealand and on all three occasions the Boks have played themselves into a position to win the game. Ironically, the two defeats that have been the most emphatic have been in South Africa, and at altitude.
So don’t be too quick to shout out that we will get them in South Africa.
We will have to play well to get them in South Africa and we will have to play for 80 minutes to finally beat the world champions.
There was very little wrong with the Boks in the opening half. They defended brilliantly, were in the All Blacks faces with aggressive and controlled defence and when they got the chance to attack they turned it into seven points.
The Bok lineout was strong and had a presence, courtesy of Victor Matfield, who in this period was colossal. Young Handré Pollard and Ruan Pienaar, inside him, were the beneficiaries of good first-phase ball. It made their evening that much more comfortable.
But the hammer blows to the Boks were the injuries to Pienaar and Francois Louw and the introduction of Bismarck du Plessis. And I didn’t think I’d ever be writing the introduction of Du Plessis as a negative to any Bok performance.
Du Plessis replaced Adriaan Strauss in the 55th minute and the Boks lost three of their own lineouts. The Bok pillar of strength wobbled for 15 minutes and it meant that the Boks chased the game in the last 25 minutes and were never in a position to close out the game.
The All Blacks led 11-7, then 11-10 and 14-10.
The Boks didn’t lead in the second half and but for the final flutter in the last few minutes never looked like scoring the try that would give them the lead.
The Boks were good without ever being excellent because if they were excellent they would have won.
And before taking too much comfort from a close defeat, ask if the Boks were that impressive, what did it say for the victors?
Applaud the bravery in performance but never applaud bravery in defeat.
The fact is the Boks still lost.
I wrote last week that there wasn’t a crisis because of a one-point defeat to the Australians. Similarly, there hasn’t been a second coming this weekend because of a four-point defeat against the All Blacks.
The Boks showed the spirit and passion of what is a healthy Bok environment, but I would argue that when it comes to the playing of the big moments they still haven’t closed the gap on the All Blacks.
But once again there is hope among South African rugby supporters and while there is hope there will always be life in this rivalry of two wonderful rugby nations.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images