The All Blacks overcame the levelling effect of the wet weather and a determined Springbok defensive effort to take what looked like an inexorable step towards a third World Cup title with a 20-18 win over their oldest and fiercest rivals in a closely fought semifinal at Twickenham on Saturday.
Make no mistake, the New Zealanders deserved to win. They scored two tries to nil, they won virtually all the statistical counts that are meaningful with the exception of the penalties, and camped for most of the match deep in South African territory. They also won the big points, and four crucial steals at lineout time helped them prevent the Boks from exerting the sustained pressure that was needed.
However, the jubilation and clear sense of relief with which the All Blacks greeted the final whistle told the story of how nervous the Boks made them when they simply refused to go away and were still in with a chance of winning the game in the final five minutes.
In many ways the Bok performance was reminiscent of the one that Wales produced against England in a pool game here four weeks ago. Once they had fought back from a five point halftime deficit (12-7), the All Blacks always looked like they had the momentum, but just couldn’t land the killer blow.
The failure of the All Blacks to translate their huge dominance in so many areas of the battle was down to two things. The first was the weather. The soaking rain that fell for most of the match proved a predictable leveller, with the Kiwi attempts to speed up play in the second half being thwarted by the slippery ball and the heavy and treacherous underfoot conditions.
The second was the Bok attitude. The South Africans may now be vanquished from the World Cup race, and let’s be honest and admit that former New Zealand coach Graham Henry was right all along when he said that this Bok team doesn’t really possess much to shout about outside of their brutal physicality.
However, what Fourie du Preez’s men proved here in front of more than 80 000 fans was that South Africans just refuse to accept the odds and lie down and die. They could have been played out of the game in the middle of the second half, but bravely fought on and would even have considered themselves to have a chance of taking the lead and clinching the win when they had a throw in at an attacking lineout just metres from the New Zealand line with nine minutes to go.
That was just though the cue for the Kiwis to show another string to their bow, which was calmness under pressure, and they easily resisted the Bok attempts to get the driving maul going. It was just another of those big points that the New Zealanders won and which was the difference between the teams.
But the New Zealanders did have their nerve tested, and will have been pleased to have come through the ordeal by doing the only thing that can really suffice at a time like that, which was to play the last five minutes of the game deep in South African territory.
Deep inside South African territory was where the All Blacks were for most of the first half. The Boks started confidently enough and Handre Pollard put the first points of the match on the board with a penalty in the third minute. Before that kick cente Jesse Kriel had offered encouragement to South African fans by executing an excellent break through the New Zealand defensive system.
The All Blacks quickly made their statement though, with the Boks, as they did for much of last week’s game against Wales, botching their attempt to exit at the restart, and the All Blacks were able to score a try in the right corner to flanker Jerome Kaino that was made to look too easy and exposed the Bok wide defence.
Who knows, maybe the difference between the teams came when Dan Carter kicked the conversion. He missed his first attempt from the touchline, but Bryan Habana was hopelessly too early with his charge and referee Jerome Garces was probably correct to ask him to take the kick again. This time he slotted it, and it was 7-3 to New Zealand after eight minutes.
The All Blacks, with Carter winning the kicking game and with a protracted aerial battle being fought out over the first half hour, began to slip into gear, but there was one problem for them – Bok flanker Francois Louw was playing out of his skin at the breakdowns, and two steals were credited to him and one to Damian de Allende as the Boks halted the Kiwi momentum.
His form deteriorated later on, when he seemed to be too deep when the All Blacks kicked the ball onto him, but in the initial stages Bok fullback Willie le Roux was much improved on his poor performance against Wales, and the All Blacks probably didn’t get as much profit from taking the aerial route as they would have hoped.
The Boks had their moments at the scrums and on the drive in the first half, but their most significant advantage was the penalty count. By the 32nd minute, the All Blacks had been penalised six times and the Boks just once. That enabled Pollard to reclaim the lead for the Boks with two more penalties, and then there was a big potential swing in the South African favour when Kaino was carded just before halftime for cynical play.
At that point the Boks had been forced to make twice as many tackles as New Zealand, they’d spent only 28 percent of the match in All Black territory, and had only enjoyed a 36percent share of possession. But the knowledge that they had enjoyed so little of the game and still led should have given them a psychological leg up.
Pollard kicked the penalty that resulted from Kaino’s offence to secure the five point halftime advantage – Carter had one kick at goal from a penalty in the first half and he hit the upright – but the Boks didn’t make their one man advantage count. The All Blacks slipped a gear immediately after the break, they started to carry the ball more and employ less grubber and contestable kicks, and instead of them suffering for being a man down, they scored three points to none before Kaino returned.
Those three points came through a well taken left footed drop goal from Carter, and then with Kaino back on the field to restore it to a 15 against 15 contest, the All Blacks built up impressively with a sustained multi-phase attack that eventually just saw the Bok defence run out of numbers and replacement Beauden Barrett slide over in the left corner off a Ma’a Nonu pass to reclaim the lead for the Kiwis.
It was a lead they were never to relinquish, their task of shutting the Boks out being made easier by the yellow card that Habana copped for a deliberate knock-down in the build-up to Barrett’s try.
But full marks to the Boks for the way they hung in, with the All Blacks twice stretching their advantage to five points and the Boks drawing it back to two, which was the end margin of defeat.
NEW ZEALAND 20 – Tries: Jerome Kaino and Beauden Barrett; Conversions: Dan Carter 2; Penalty: Dan Carter; Drop-goal: Dan Carter.
SOUTH AFRICA 18 – Penalties: Handre Pollard 5 and Patrick Lambie.