‘You must be a sadomasochist.’
I heard several versions of this pronouncement as I announced and made my return to the place where the ghost of Bryce Lawrence swirls in the fresh winds of the Cook Strait.
My last time in the Cake Tin was chronicled on The Roar. David Pocock pillaged the Springboks, the Boks bombed out of the World Cup despite owning the ball for the vast majority of the match, and at the end of the night, we heard a drunken Aussie saxophonist playing ‘Waltzing Matilda.’
When the Rugby Championship schedule for 2018 was announced, I looked at Round 4 and thought: ‘It’s time to go back to the scene of the crime.’ As Rassie Erasmus restored the Bok brutality and try-scoring pedigree in the England series, I thought: ‘We might spring an upset.’
The Bok attack looked incisive after the first four tests of the year, even if our first twenty minutes of each Test was abysmal, and our ‘are we rushing or drifting?’ defensive system looked like the cheese on a taco already eaten.
Then came Mendoza and Brisbane, and the first hiccups in our attack: losses on the road for a team renowned for traveling poorly. My voyage to Wellington seemed like a fool’s errand. Who would fly to the end of the earth, book hotels and trudge in a sea of black-clad confidence, to see another rout? A rugby martyr?
The only rationale was faith: clinging to a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.
Reasons to disbelieve abounded.
The Cake Tin is a Bok graveyard; the average scoreline was 13-30. South Africa had never beaten the All Blacks in this stadium, where Bok-burying breakdown-burgling Bryce Lawrence’s spirit wafted in the northerly winds.
The Boklings starting XV had only 426 caps between them, up against a 782-cap All Black behemoth. Five Boks had 10 caps or fewer.
Misfiring Handre Pollard kicks high off the tee; his 9-iron flight would be more wind-affected than Beauden Barrett’s 2-iron, who is deadly with his low flight, and has Damian McKenzie or his brother to back him up.
The All Black spine was several grades higher than the Boks’ herniated vertebrae (out-of-form Faf de Klerk, Willie le Roux and Warren Whiteley seemed no match for 111-cap Kieran Read, the world’s best halves, and Ben Smith at the back). To make Whiteley feel even less confident, Erasmus announced he was parachuting Duane Vermuelen in, but then Thor went down to injury.
Only one man in the 7th ranked Bok 23 had ever beaten the All Blacks at home: Beast Mtawarira, who had lost the No 1 jersey to Steven Kitshoff. Only four players had ever won against the All Blacks in a test in South Africa: Pollard, Eben Etzebeth, Willie le Roux, and Mtawarira.
If Cheslin Kolbe came on, he would be the shortest player on the pitch, and would be easy pickings in an aerial duel with Reiko Ioane or Jordie Barrett. How easy would it be for the All Blacks to torment a rookie wing like Kolbe or Jesse Kriel (replacing Makazole Mapimpi)? They always find the weak link. Remember Raymond Rhule’s nine missed tackles at Albany?
The last time Malcolm Marx had to throw in a test in New Zealand, he could not hit the side of a bakkie. And here was Sam Whitelock, known thief and lineout centurion. On Test morning, I saw lanky Whitelock in shorts, swinging his kid on Wellington dockside, having a slow coffee with his partner; clearly not a care in the world.
In contrast, when I ran into 6-cap 23-year old RG Snyman (how can you miss him?) later in the day, he exuded energy. Would it be Snyman going up at 79:00 to win a crucial lineout toss from Marx or Bongi Mbonambi, he who threw the fateful ‘pass’ to Matt Toomua for a try?
Our breakdown seemed broken, our opensider is really a smallish blindsider who tires early, our blindsider is really a lock who isn’t nimble, and our No 8 couldn’t be hired as a bouncer even in Sri Lanka.
Nobody was tipping the Boks. We saw Jeff Wilson on Friday night, and buoyed by a few tequila shots, I asked him and his table mates to predict the Test. They all said permutations of the same thing: the home side would run the big Boks ragged, and blow it out in the final quarter. None of my mates saw it being close; albeit, noted Wellington blogger Diggercane was skeptical of a blowout.
It was a grand privilege to watch practice drills with Digger. The only Bok player out early was Faf de Klerk, his golden mane evoking memories of Percy Montgomery. His preparation was vertical box kicks, to himself. How were we to know his preternatural genius: he would in fact kick a three metre box kick, leap, with hair exploding as if in a shampoo commercial, and retrieve the lonely ball right next to two metre but earthbound Whitelock.
The All Black kickers seemed beyond confident. A rugby-golf match between the Smiths and the Barretts; smiles all around. The only one who practiced sideline conversions was the younger, lankier Barrett.
The home forwards rehearsed mauling and maul-defence.
Just before anthems, the Bok forwards did frenzied set piece drills, and the backs ran and tackled in traffic, to perfect their ‘swimming’ in the rush defence.
Erasmus made a slow diagonal march across the field, whilst on the phone, and chatted with Faf. The two rival scrum coaches spoke for ages, and gesticulated, as if comparing binds.
Dinner in the lounge was a sea of calmly confident home fans, discussing sales reports, new growth, and, by the way, how much will we win by, ha ha! A classical chamber quartet played soft and soothing symphonies. When I chanted “Bokke, Bokke, Bokke!” in the entrance, an All Black fan responded “Oy, oy, oy.” The Boks weren’t even causing a bit of angst in the home fans. I had no real evidence to dispute their view.
Yes, there were a few glimpses of hope: the Boks were scoring tries again in 2018, and in a different way. We were scoring quicker, from fewer phases, not predominantly from lineouts or drives, and were finding ways to switch fields faster, stack or create a false blindside, and punish turnovers more quickly. Also, our tight five would not be overpowered. Pollard has Kiwi-beating DNA, from juniors to now. On his day, Willie le Roux has found creases in Kiwi defences.
Nick Mallett, the only South African coach to have a winning record against the All Blacks, noted that it would take at least 35 points scored to beat the All Blacks. That seemed correct: it was doubtful we could hold the firm of Barrett and Smith under their average. We would need to score early and often.
The All Blacks did seem a bit more generous on defence than in past seasons: throwing too many bad passes (about 27 a game), making too many handling errors (about 23 a game), and conceding too many turnovers in their own half. But still, it seemed academic. They were still creating so many linebreaks, breaking so many tackles, and finishing with offloading skills and not being penalised (a staggeringly low 3.25 penalties per match, now).
Belief was hard to find.
And nothing about the start of the match gave me belief. I was operating purely on blind, irrational faith. We could not complete three phases; we had no spacing. Pollard hoofed it over the dead ball line. In the blink of an eye it was 0-12, which was the modus operandi of the 2018 Boks (to fall behind early, generously providing soft overlap tries), but we weren’t playing Eddie Jones’ England, on the High Veld!
We were in windy Wellington, in front of 35,000 Kiwis and about 350 Saffas, and they could smell our blood.
My boast on Friday night to Diggercane, Rugby Tragic, and the rest was: ‘I will drink your blood. We will win.’ There may have also been oaths about nudity and lucky hats, but the point was the only team smelling blood after 10 minutes were the rampant All Blacks.
As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, in a very different context:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”
Any win was going to be hard, from 0-12. Nigel Owens is one of the top referees in the world, but he was not enjoying the Boks’ work at the breakdown, he saw the rush defence as perpetually offside, the wind was turning Faf’s box kicks into fluttering kites, and he is a momentum official, most of the time.
And then, a bolt of lightning. Fluid shifts of the ball, Willie in a bit of space, a high pass corralled by a flying Aphiwe Dyantyi, one of the six starting players debuted by Erasmus, and a real discovery: he has legitimate sprinter speed, and he danced by BBBBB to make an easier conversion for Pollard, who kicked the ball as high as possible and straight as a gate.
A similar speed move saw a Willie grubber, a Dyantyi half-break, and an ill-advised Jordie throw to a bemused Ioane, who looked like a fielder judging whether to save the four or go for the highlight catch. Willie had disbelief written all over his face as he scored. He says he thought the touch referee was calling him back.
And I was punching myself in the face, roaring like a madman. I felt it. I felt that feeling.
Belief grew. You could see it in players like Pieter-Steph du Toit, chasing backs down like his life depended on it, or Franco Mostert, doing the backstroke on a Bok wave, ending in a low, hard score by Marx the machine. Even missed tackles, like PSDT’s attempted grab of Anton Lienert-Brown behind the gainline, led to a hasty pass snapped up by tiny Kolbe, who needed no further invitation to take the cheese.
The speed at which players like Kriel, Dyantyi, Marx, Whiteley, and Pollard came at the All Blacks created a ripple effect of stress.
Almost always, the All Blacks’ metres per carry statistics exceed the Boks’ by at least 2 metres. This night it was 5.15 m/c for the All Blacks, and 6.85 m/c for the Boks. If you give Read ten or more carries, he typically finds a way to create a couple of tries. On this night, he had 24 carries, but could not break the line, even being swamped by wing-centre Kriel after picking up five metres from the try line near the end.
The All Blacks did not kick enough to create pressure, conceded 16 turnovers, and could not own the gainline, dropped the ball 23 times as 13.4 per cent of the Bok tackles were ‘dominant’ (compared to only 4.5 per cent of their own tackles), a statistic almost never seen.
All of it led to a crescendo of nerves at the end. Diggercane was mournfully predicting balls hitting poles and I felt his belief and the confidence of all those around me wane just a wee bit.
Belief was sky high in the Bok forwards who repelled the repetitive charges and scrums. It was even higher in the beleaguered and much-maligned backline defence, as Faf harassed the All Black halfbacks all night, and then Kriel ran like a demon at BBBBB (Beauden Bok-Bequeathing Boot-Bungling Barrett) causing an average pass to Macca, who was bum-rushed by Dyantyi, a constant irritant to him all evening. Young and old the Saffas believed again, as they danced and swore and drank and cried like PSDT, the joy of finally winning against the old and honourable and gracious, but ferocious enemy made all the sweeter because of how hard it was and how difficult it was to keep faith.
Nobody had any delusions, Erasmus least of all: the All Blacks are light years ahead still. But there is belief. And belief is a powerful thing.
Wellington is a lovely town, with a beautiful stadium, witty people, a fresh wind, and all the ghosts are busted now.
I am not a sadomasochist.