New Zealand 19 (13) South Africa 17 (11)
Improved Boks undone at the death by lack of ambition and Barrett’s boot
The Springboks’ brutal defence was back, the set piece was dominant and the game plan almost perfect, yet it was the All Blacks who won the 100th clash between these rugby giants because... they took their chances.
New Zealand – Try: Will Jordan. Conversion: Jordie Barrett. Penalties: Jordie Barrett (4).
South Africa – Try: S’bu Nkosi. Penalties: Handre Pollard (4).
The Springboks did everything but win the 100th meeting against the All Blacks, but in the cold light of day, they need to acknowledge that their lack of ambition cost them as New Zealand won the 2021 Rugby Championship by winning 19-17.
Leading 17-16 with five minutes to play, the Boks had momentum and possession. The All Blacks were creaking under the strain of being hammered in contact, unlike anything they have experienced over the past two years and were at breaking point.
The Boks’ dominant set-piece and the aerial game had left New Zealand staggering. But it needed the rugby equivalent of a right hook to finish them off, not more jabbing.
Bok halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard, in the space of a few seconds, made two aimless kicks that relieved pressure on New Zealand. Pollard’s kick, which came on the back of a scrum advantage for the Boks after an All Black knock-on, was a catastrophic decision.
He hoofed the ball to the right on New Zealand’s 10-metre line and referee Luke Pearce immediately called ‘advantage over’. A phase later Willie le Roux was left under pressure from All Black centre Quinn Tupaea and conceded a penalty.
With three minutes to play fullback Jordie Barrett nailed the difficult kick – his fifth successful shot at goal – to edge the All Blacks 19-17 ahead for the sixth and final lead change of the match.
It’s easy to blame the players, but the Boks’ default setting is to kick possession away and reclaim in better field position. Late in the game, there were chances with the All Blacks close to disarray. But it needed the Boks to be bolder with the ball in hand and recognise the spaces to run into when they had their opponents stretched.
Several times, after creating pressure through their box kicks and regaining possession in good field position, they opted for another kick – twice from on the All Blacks’ 22-metre line. At those times they had ascendancy and momentum but reverted to a 50/50 ball in the air.
That is a coaching decision and a predetermined act. For almost the entire 80 minutes in Townsville on Saturday, the tactic worked well.
New Zealand’s back three battled to contain the Boks’ aerial assault. Wing George Bridge was particularly poor and his fumble led to a try for opposite number S’bu Nkosi in the sixth minute.
It was the perfect riposte after the All Blacks cut the Boks defence open in the third minute where hooker Codie Taylor fed wing Will Jordan for the opening try.
Two tries inside the opening 10 minutes suggested a big score might be in store, but the Boks cleverly turned the All Blacks when they could and smothered them with massive line speed when they had to.
The Boks defence was back to its brutal best as well. Despite Jordan’s early try, the All Blacks hardly made any headway with the ball for the next 77 minutes. It was the first time they had failed to score more than one try in the game since losing the World Cup semi-final to England in 2019.
Pollard landed four penalties for 12 points, but missed the conversion to Nkosi’s try and also made a few other errors. Despite some excellent defence and a few deft touches, he is not the consistent performer of two years ago and looks like a man in need of a break soon.
Tactically, the Boks were spot on and they executed the plan superbly.
Kwagga Smith’s inclusion at flank was a success as he created havoc at the breakdown. Smith’s work in tandem with captain Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen in the back row was excellent and worth another outing in the return match next week.
And speaking of Kolisi, he delivered a stupendous performance that will only fail to go down as one of the all-time greats because of the final result. If ever a man deserved to be on the winning side, it was the Bok skipper.
From his steely acceptance of the Haka to his shuddering defence and marauding runs, Kolisi gave everything in an ultimately doomed cause. His forwards all followed his lead with locks Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth both towering presences.
The All Blacks, though, are not statistically the greatest team in rugby for nothing. Even when they’re struggling and are being pressured, they find ways to stay in the game. They do just enough to ensure they are always in striking distance.
The Boks forced New Zealand out of their comfort zone and there were many uncharacteristic handling errors in the face of the Bok defence. But they hung on and benefitted from relieving penalties.
The Boks’ good tactical work was undone by some poor discipline as they conceded 16 penalties that released the valve at crucial times. Nkosi also earned a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on. His 10 minutes in the sin bin yielded one penalty for the All Blacks, which was ultimately the difference.
Bolder approach needed
Seldom has an All Black team looked so vulnerable in the final quarter but they were only being asked one type of question and they just about clung on.
Had the Bok’s been bolder and stretched the All Blacks they might have been rewarded, instead, they chose to play the percentages. In a game of fine margins the percentages sometimes go against you and on this occasion the All Blacks edged it.
After the match, skipper Siya Kolisi was adamant that the decision to stick to the kicking first tactic was an on-field decision and something they never questioned and never considered altering.
“The players stuck to the game plan and we were never going to change it. It worked the entire day so why change it at the end,” Kolisi said afterwards.
It’s a fair point, in the sense that the match was in the balance precisely because of the Boks’ tactics. Yet there is certainly a stubbornness – at least publicly – by this Bok team to acknowledge that tactics can sometimes be tweaked during games.
Coach Jacques Nienaber quoted from the same script as his captain. “No, I don’t think we needed to change tactics,” Nienaber said. “People always say attack space, but if they have 14 (defenders) in the front line and one at the back, there is not a lot of space in front. Sometimes the space is behind.
“I thought the effort was excellent and that we deserved a victory. But it comes down to small margins. I’m hurting because we were in a position to win it.”
The Boks are now on a three-match losing streak – their worst since 2016 – and the warm glow of winning the series against the British & Irish Lions is fast losing its appeal.
They are the world champions and have spoken passionately about becoming a dominant team in between that global tournament, but right now they have lost four of nine Tests this year for a middling 56% winning ratio.
Three of those losses have been by five points or fewer, and two have been with the last kicks of the game. Of course the record could be much better with a little more luck.
But maybe the Boks need to be the architects of their own luck by being more unpredictable and looking for more ways to score tries.
Whenever there are only a handful of points between teams going in the dying minutes, the outcome becomes a lottery. The final penalty was a marginal call and on another day the penalty might have gone against Tupaea for not releasing. The outcome though, should not have been in the balance by then.
In Townsville, the Boks’ numbers didn’t come up because they didn’t roll the dice. DM