With both teams chasing a bonus point, they were eager to have a crack with ball in hand and the result was an enthralling spectacle, even if the outcome was New Zealand once again winning with something to spare.
If the disappointed Springboks are to go away from Ellis Park with anything, it is the knowledge (confirmed by several All Blacks) that they had severely stressed the defensive patterns of the New Zealanders and, were it not for some infuriatingly soft moments in defence, the home side could well have come away with the spoils.
The likes of Kieran Read, Liam Messam, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Conrad Smith left buckets of sweat out on the Ellis Park pitch as they simply refused to continue their two-match losing streak at South Africa’s most intimidating venue. Even when Messam and Ben Franks were yellow-carded and off the field, the Springboks could make little headway.
“We had to dig pretty deep, there was a helluva lot of running and the ball was in play for long periods. Plus we had to play 20 minutes with 14 men, plus the travel, so we had to hang in there when the momentum was against us. We could easily have got flustered,” captain McCaw said after the game.
“Days like today are the reason you put on the boots. The players gave everything they had, so we did not have much energy left at the end of the game to get carried away.”
Even All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who is gruff at the best of times, was impressed: “That was a very, very special game of rugby, both sets of players left everything on the park and both countries should be very proud.
“I’m particularly proud of our win because we played 20 minutes with 14 men and showed great character. We were under lots of pressure in the first half and it showed the mental fortitude of the team. It’s very gratifying to win a game which we had to work really hard for,” Hansen said.
Read was the well-deserved man of the match and the all-action hero was understandably knackered after the game: “The first 20 minutes and the last 10 minutes were really gut-busting and we managed to hang in there in the middle period as well. We had to put in some huge defence and that was epitomised by how we stopped the Springboks’ strong lineout drive, we managed to stop them a few times,” the superb eighthman said with a croaking voice.
The defence of the All Blacks was the obvious difference between the two teams. Although the Springboks enjoyed 58% of possession and 60% of territory, their opponents missed just 22 (14%) of their 156 tackles.
South Africa, in contrast, missed a third of their 91 tackles and coach Heyneke Meyer pinpointed this as the obvious reason for their defeat.
“We gave everything on attack and played well, but I’m very disappointed in the defence. You have to keep your lines and we didn’t.
“The defensive problems were due to over-eagerness. The main reason for the defensive problems was that we shot out of line,” Meyer said.
It seems that in their eagerness to attack and score tries, the Springboks forgot about the importance of defence.
“Defensively we let ourselves down, there’s not too much else to say,” captain Jean de Villiers admitted.
“Heyneke’s belief was always there and we let him down by our defensive effort. The structures are there, it’s down to individuals, defence is about you against the guy in front of you. The game is about 50% defence and 50% attack.”
As brilliantly as the Springboks performed in the scrums and the collisions, it was noticeable how the lack of mobility in the pack – especially in the tight five – was exposed by the dancing feet of the All Blacks. There’s no lack of physicality in the New Zealand pack and their running and handling skills are a level above the Springboks’.
Thankfully, all the refeering horrors of Eden Park will now be water under the bridge as the All Blacks clinched the title in convincing fashion in a superb game expertly handled by Welsh whistleman Nigel Owens.
And, even though the match was a bridge too far for the Springboks, there was still much for them to feel positive about.
The sight of wave-after-wave of Springbok attackers pelting the All Blacks line was thrilling and the offensive play of Meyer’s team has probably been the most improved aspect of their game, along with, and no doubt linked to, the better skills at the breakdown.
The tries the Springboks did score were of the highest quality. The magnificent Bryan Habana showed all the pace and finishing skills that have thrilled rugby fans since 2004 as he scored two tries in two minutes as the home side took a 15-7 lead midway through the first half and allowed the capacity crowd to believe.
The power, pace and skills of loose forwards Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw were critical in both those tries, while the clinical finishing of wing Willie le Roux claimed the important opening points of the second half.
The bonus point try was secured in the 58th minute courtesy of De Villiers, who in the last two years has marked himself as one of the greatest Springbok captains and has shown such great form at inside centre that he must be a strong candidate for the player of the year award.
The sheer determination he showed in shrugging off three tacklers to score was typical of the man, and yet he has also shown amazing sportsmanship in dealing with the injustice of Eden Park and even telling Owens not to worry about the incorrect team sheet the All Blacks had supplied at Ellis Park.
“The captain was awesome tonight, especially his try – that was pure will and character,” Meyer said.
The Springboks are normally more bark on attack and terrible bite on defence, but at Ellis Park their defence was a dog’s breakfast.
Every time they scored and looked like pulling away from the All Blacks, the Kiwis fought back, helped by inexcusably soft moments.
While Habana broke the record for the most career tries in the competition, All Blacks wing Ben Smith is the new owner of the season record as he opened the scoring in the 12th minute, finishing superbly after the Springboks had dropped the kick-off after kicking a penalty.
With the Springboks deprived of the try-scoring ability of Habana, who limped off with a hamstring strain shortly after his joyous double, and the momentum-winning skills of Willem Alberts shortly before half-time, Messam scored twice before the break.
The first came after Whitelock had carried the ball to within six metres of the tryline with ridiculous ease and the flank powered over the line with lock Retallick on his shoulder.
His second try was particularly damaging as, with the halftime hooter having already sounded, JJ Engelbrecht didn’t kick the ball out but went on his own, was turned over by Read and the All Blacks launched and completed a patient attack to ensure they went into the break with renewed confidence.
“We lost the game just before half-time, it was going well, the call was to kick out, we didn’t and they scored,” Meyer said.
Within four minutes of De Villiers giving the Springboks the bonus point and a 27-24 lead, replacement flyhalf Beauden Barrett sealed the destination of the title as he sliced through three defenders with contemptuous ease to score New Zealand’s fourth try and it was a blow the Springboks never recovered from.
It was left to Read to seal a memorable victory for the All Blacks as he rampaged down the left touchline to score the fifth try.
It’s a wonderful characteristic of the All Blacks that they always find a way to win. It certainly helped them that the Springboks were forced by circumstance to take them on at their own game, but it shouldn’t detract from the victory.
It seems that whatever South Africa hit them with, they can absorb it, while their own lethal weapons create holes from which the Springboks cannot recover.
Whether it remains this way depends on the further growth of this Springbok team and how well the players and coaching staff take these lessons on board. DM
Photo: South Africa’s captain Jean de Villiers (R) is challenged by New Zealand’s All Blacks Ma’a Nonu during the final round of the Rugby Championship at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg October 5, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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