There is a truism in rugby that what happens in the first minute of a match is worth exactly the same as what happens in the final minute.
But human nature being what it is, and the understanding that the last play of the match is indeed the final opportunity to win (or lose) a tight game, means that it is these plays that write the headlines and shape the narrative for coaches, players and frustrated or elated fans in the aftermath.
These are rugby’s Sliding Doors moments; a phrase made popular by the 1998 movie starring John Hannah and Gwyneth Paltrow, where destiny is shaped by seemingly random or disconnected actions.
In that respect, an incredibly intense night of Test rugby could have had any number of different endings, but it was the try-saving acts of Aphiwa Dyantyi and Tomas Lavanini that ultimately told the tale for all four sides.
With time up and the Springboks defence compressed in and around their goalposts, the All Blacks identified space to the right where Damian McKenzie propped and stepped inside a flying Dyantyi. From here it was a simple pass to an unmarked Ben Smith, who, with only ten metres to run, comfortably beats Faf de Klerk on the angle to score.
There’s your headlines right there; ‘Brave Springboks fall at the final hurdle’, or ‘All Blacks pull stunning victory out of the fire.’
Except that’s not what happened. Beaten on the tackle, Dyantyi flung his arm out at the ball and got enough of it to dislodge it from McKenzie’s grasp. And so the story instead became Peter Steph du Toit’s tears of joy and disbelief, and the All Blacks’ refusal to set themselves for a match-winning drop goal.
As far as epic All Blacks versus Springboks Test matches go – and there have been plenty of them over the years – this was right up there. Not perhaps for the quality of the rugby, but for the defensive heroics of the Boks, and the fact that it came in the wake of two limp defeats to Argentina and Australia.
The match was a stark reminder that no matter all of the impersonality of professional rugby and the way that the game gets tugged and pulled away from its grassroots in the name of say, South Africa seeking financial security in the north, the contest between the Boks and the All Blacks must remain sacrosanct.
By now the statistically minded will have scoured the record books searching for other sides to have scored six tries in a Test and lost. It will be a short list.
Never mind also, the fuzzy logic that a side conceding six tries is hailed today as heroic because of its defence. But that is because the All Blacks had enough ball to score many more and, on another day against less committed and well-organised opposition, would surely have done so.
It was here that coach Rassie Erasmus identified his own side’s strengths – physical size and strength in his packmen – and built a game plan around dominating the tackle which, in the process, nullified the All Blacks’ ability to play at high pace from breakdown to breakdown.
Runners were not only met head on, but were consistently wrestled backwards, and while the All Blacks mostly were able to retain possession, they were prevented from rolling onto the front foot and having the space to fracture the defensive line.
Denied the natural high tempo they desired, the All Blacks resorted to trying to manufacture it and, in the process, turned their usual strength into a critical weakness.
Jordie Barrett throwing quickly when not sufficiently aware of the Springbok backs pressing up, Aaron Smith tapping and running a penalty that could have been kicked to an attacking lineout in the 22, and the All Blacks opting to play out of their 22 right on halftime; these were all attempts to impose their will on the game.
Instead, against this mentally sharp South African side – unrecognisable from the bumbling outfit last sighted in Brisbane – these were gifts from heaven; 17 points in all. And, in the end, this was the winning and losing of the match.
Not that it was all opportunism – the Springboks’ 57th minute try to Dyantyi was as good as any seen in Test rugby this year, featuring wonderful interplay between forwards and backs, and a superb transfer from funny-man RG Snyman.
If there is something faintly unedifying about Sky NZ TV placing such a heavy focus on betting in their regular pre-match build-up, this episode had a particular whiff about it. TAB ‘talking head’ Mark Stafford dismissed head-to-head bets on the match, instead spruiking value in the All Blacks’ margin of victory, and other exotic options like exactly at what moment they would clinch the Rugby Championships.
Call it tempting fate, or a reminder to All Blacks’ fans already locking in a fourth World Cup not to get too far ahead of themselves, but Stafford and his bosses will care little. They are today too busy counting misdirected cash.
For only the seventh time as All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen got to say that his side learns more from losing than winning – and it isn’t hard to come away feeling that the particular nature of this loss (with Beauden Barrett leaving too many easy points on the park), what it means for ailing South African fans, and the hope that it provides other nations, isn’t a bad outcome all round.
This was Hansen’s 2007 World Cup quarter-final, and it presents an opportunity to assess now – rather than in Japan next year – whether a slavish commitment to attacking at any cost might not be tempered by better recognition of what the opposition is doing on the night.
And – heaven forbid because it is not the New Zealand way – whether to accept that dropping Barrett or McKenzie into the pocket 15m out in front of the posts and slipping over a drop-kick is an honourable way to win a Test match.
In Robina, the Wallabies found themselves in a similar situation to the All Blacks, hot on attack in the final minute, desperately seeking a score to snatch the game. The difference here was that, courtesy of a booming 50m penalty from Emiliano Boffelli taking the score out to 23-19, a try, not a drop-goal, was the only option.
Despite all of the muddling that had gone before, the Wallabies held their nerve, stayed positive, and did enough to create space, and the match-winning opportunity, on the right flank.
Israel Folau deciding not to pass to an unmarked Bernard Foley was a ‘sliding doors’ moment in itself, one that on reflection, he will surely regret. Regardless, Folau seemed certain to score, being close enough to the line to fall through any tackle.
Any mortal tackle perhaps, but Tomas Lavanini – so often pilloried for ill-disciplined and lazy play – did remarkably well to not only get across in cover, but to hit Folau with everything he had left.
He somehow found within him enough force to jolt the ball free, and set off a chain of events that saw a stroppy fan jostle with Wallabies players after the match, Australia now languishing at number seven in the world rankings, and coach Michael Cheika’s tenure again being called into question.
Despite the defeat, disappointed Wallabies fans should be careful not to wallow in their own side’s misgivings and misfortunes. Other than inflating and deflating expectations, there is little to be gained from adopting a self-entitled view about one’s own side without paying any heed to the opposition.
We saw the same factors at play last year when the Wallabies lost twice to Scotland – another side, just like Argentina, that has improved immeasurably.
Perhaps without access to pay TV, fans simply haven’t noticed the Jaguares winning away from home this year in Australia and New Zealand, or the manner in which they disposed of the Springboks in Mendoza.
If they had, this loss would come as far less of a surprise.
As it turned out, the Pumas didn’t play particularly well, coach Mario Ledesma noting afterwards how, “it looked like we didn’t want to win the game.” Incredibly, their kickers directed no less than seven kicks to Folau – giving away possession as simply as they did in the back end of the game with sloppy handling.
But what this Pumas side has is enviable scoring power in the back three (they had another two tries turned down on TMO review), and vastly improved discipline. Witness how the Wallabies sought to rile playmaker Nicolas Sanchez and how, while he frayed, he nor his teammates never snapped.
What Wallabies fans are right to feel frustrated about is how their side had ample opportunities to control – and win – the game, but failed to do so. Cheika bemoaned after the match how his side wasn’t “on fire enough”, but it was basics like multiple handling errors and missed lineout throws on attack that hurt the Wallabies most.
The early substitution of Matt Toomua puzzled most observers, including, it must be said, Toomua himself. In a match that became increasingly scrappy as it went on, Toomua appealed as the one Wallaby who was calm and accurate in everything he did.
By contrast, Kurtley Beale again lacked poise and the ability to correctly align his backline. His shift to fly-half looks increasingly like an experiment whose days are numbered.
The Wallabies’ loose forward trio was exposed for pace and the lack of any sense of operating as a unit. Captain Michael Hooper’s dicky hamstring may or may not allow him to return for the final two matches but, even so, and despite the merits of the win in Brisbane, this is a side that now lacks identity and clarity in two key departments – the loose forward combination and the inside backs.
There was one small ray of light from earlier in the day, with blindside breakaway Jack Dempsey making a solid return to rugby after 11 months out of the game following a horrific leg injury.
It was another round of NRC rugby that featured high scores, a five-try haul to Melbourne’s Tom English, and the Fijian Drua bubble being burst by Queensland Country.
Dempsey stripped for the Sydney Rays, who hosted Brisbane City at the picturesque Woollahra Oval, home of the Eastern Suburbs rugby club.
The timing was delicate given that last week Easts president John Murray joined Shute Shield partner Nick Fordham in an extraordinary attack on Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby, Fordham claiming that “no-one gives two f*cks about the NRC”, and Murray lambasting professional rugby when he said, “imagine if you got rid of all these academies and high-performance shit and said the high-performance unit is your local rugby club.”
Therein lies the rub. Two men battling for the code they love can only do so in a way that disingenuously sidesteps their own commercial imperatives and ambitions, and that is divisive and combative and disrespectful.
Australia’s national daily newspaper features a weekly column where ex-Wallaby coach Alan Jones launches tirade after tirade against Rugby Australia and CEO Raelene Castle. Once again, divisive and disrespectful.
Australian rugby people who genuinely want to see the code strengthened at all levels, from schoolboys to the Wallabies, to see cohesive and integrated pathways, better talent identification and coaching development, and to see enthusiasm for the game to return, know that this can only be achieved through a constructive, collegiate discourse and operating framework.
With signs emerging of a dialogue between World Series Rugby (WSR) and Rugby Australia potentially leading to an outcome that would provide WSR with a Sydney presence whilst protecting existing structures and providing financial investment into an ailing Western Suburbs, there is a glimmer of hope at least.