Springboks: Good, but not good enough
The Springbok team that took on New Zealand on the weekend was a strong one. But they were still no match for the All Blacks, who just put too much distance between the first and second world ranking for the Springboks to catch up. By KEN BORLAND.
Richie McCaw, celebrating his extraordinary 100th Test win, said after New Zealand's 32-16 victory over South Africa at the FNB Stadium that the hardest thing at the top level of sport was the mental side of the game.
And that is where the All Blacks had the edge over the Springboks, as well as in the marvellous skills of their backline.
South Africa had dominated for long stages of the first half, without always converting that into points, but coach Heyneke Meyer would have settled for the 10-0 lead after the first quarter, being 16-12 at the break.
But as soon as the second half started, the All Blacks showed why they are the number one-ranked side in the world.
They won possession from the kick-off and, before the first minute had elapsed, fullback Israel Dagg, who broke South African hearts at the same stadium in 2010, had sniffed out the gap, broken through and thrown an overhead pass for the tireless eighthman Kieran Read to latch onto, leading to an easy try for bullocking centre Ma'a Nonu.
Twelve minutes later, the Springboks' backline defence went horribly awry and the All Blacks' other centre, Conrad Smith, was able to stroll over for what proved to be the match-winning try.
They were two more of the "soft moments" that have dogged this inexperienced Springbok team through the competition and they come down to lapses in concentration.
"We have to learn from our mistakes and get mentally tougher," Meyer said after the game. "In the first half, we had them under pressure, they had to keep playing from deep, and at half-time we were in the game, leading 16-12.
"But just after half-time, we had a turnover against the best counter-attacking team and that put them ahead. Dan Carter was then superb as he controlled the game and it was very difficult for us to catch up. They forced us to take risks and the mistakes came, but they were soft moments," Meyer complained.
"The defensive mistakes were down to a lack of experience, but they should not have happened, because it's backs against backs. Those were soft moments again."
The costly mistakes weren't just on defence, either. If Bryan Habana could have held onto the ball while cutting inside five metres from the line, or the Springboks had maintained possession after a rolling maul had carried them deep into the All Blacks' 22, they might have been able to put some pressure on the visitors in the final quarter.
Not that this All Blacks team seems overly susceptible to pressure. Despite hardly seeing the ball or being able to get out of their own territory for most of the first half, there was no panic or doubt.
They have a marvellous predatory instinct to strike with precision when the time is right, with Dagg and wing Hosea Gear playing with cat-like stealth and proving too much of a handful for the Springbok defence.
Meyer was being realistic when he said after the game that there was still a big gap between the two teams.
"There's obviously a big difference between second and first on the rankings, and even though the All Blacks might play badly, they always have one or two brilliant players who get them off the hook.
"It will take a special side to beat them and they will need some luck and a referee who gives them all the 50/50 calls," Meyer said.
The Springboks will take some heart from New Zealand coach Steve Hansen praising them for being "a great opponent", but, more importantly, will the youngsters in the South African side take on board the lessons learnt and use it to become better rugby players?
"That's a very good Springbok team and it will only get better. They will build some character out of today and it was a great victory for us against a great opponent," Hansen said.
There is certainly no lack of hunger or desire in the Springbok team, and they once again dominated the All Blacks up front in the first half, as well as producing some good attacking play and showing a willingness to get the ball wide.
It will be a long process for this Springbok team to challenge the world champions; that sort of brilliance does not come quickly.
The New Zealand squad currently has six of the most capped All Blacks in history by position: Tony Woodcock (prop, 91 caps), Keven Mealamu (hooker, 99 caps), Richie McCaw (flank, 112 caps), Dan Carter (flyhalf, 91 caps), Ma'a Nonu (inside centre, 72 caps) and Conrad Smith (outside centre, 62 caps); while Owen Franks (40), Andrew Hore (71), Cory Jane (37), Kieran Read (44), Piri Weepu (65) and Sam Whitelock (34) are all well-established on the international stage.
Jean de Villiers, Jannie du Plessis, Habana, Tendai Mtawarira and Ruan Pienaar are the only Springboks with more than 30 caps.
But it seems likely that this Springbok team will be better for their tough experiences this year, and they will be considerably stronger with Schalk Burger, Bismarck du Plessis, JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn back from injury.
But the All Blacks are without doubt the benchmark in world rugby at the moment and the Springboks will be aiming to replicate their composure and brilliance under pressure.
As the hookers (ahem, not the rugby variety!) told me at New Zealand's Sandton hotel on Saturday night, "Everybody is loving All the Blacks".
And with good reason. The Springboks will be a better team for Saturday's lesson. DM
Photo: South Africa's Jean de Villiers (R) tackles New Zealand's Tamati Ellison during their Rugby Championship union test match in Soweto October 6, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings