It was an electric, captivating and entertaining Test match.
For the first eighteen minutes of the Rugby World Cup match between South Africa and New Zealand, the Springboks looked on top of things. They played hard and physical with much of the possession while the All Blacks looked out of sync and at times flustered, nerves perhaps playing a role as well. A few more points to the Springboks in the first twenty minutes might have changed the course of the game.
But by the end of the first half the All Blacks had capitalised on opportunities – as they so ruthlessly do – and their defence was immense. In fact, it’s an often overlooked aspect of their play that deserves more credit as the Boks were trying everything to get through.
Two quick tries – to George Bridge in the 23rd min and to Scott Barrett in the 26th – in the last twenty minutes of the half gave the near 70,000 fans in the stadium a look at an increasingly unsettled Springboks team, who were now making mistakes and somewhat struggling uncomfortably as they faced an array of kicking and running tactics from the Kiwis.
As South African flanker Francois Louw noted after the game, “High balls are challenging, so we can’t blame it on any one player, it’s a collective effort. Unfortunately, they [New Zealand] capitalised on those errors.”
The 17-3 score at the break would require the Boks to search deep if they were to pull such a lead back from the All Blacks.
And they did.
They came very close to taking the game away from the All Blacks in the second half. Richie Mo’unga made a game-saving tackle on Cheslin Kolbe late in the second half, on which Chester later commented after that game that he “showed good wheels… I just need to make sure that I finish things off when I get another chance like that.”
The South Africans had pulled the difference back to 17-13, thanks to a converted try by Pieter-Steph du Toit in the 47th minute and a drop goal by Handrè Pollard in the 58th. They were clearly within reach of another sea-change in the score in what was a truly entertaining match.
But then more errors were punished with penalties by Richie M’ounga in the 66th minute and Beauden Barrett in the 71st, who put the All Blacks out of reach as the game closed down.
“They handled our kicking game very well,” said South African captain Siya Kolisi, “everything we threw at them… we didn’t execute when we had the opportunities. Like coach said, every time we were attacking, we would make a mistake.”
South African coach Rassie Erasmus was full of praise for the All Blacks after the match. “New Zealand deserved to win,” he said, “they’re definitely the favourite for winning the World Cup.”
“They scored from our mistakes. It wasn’t a lack of effort [for South Africa], it was a lack of execution… discipline was our biggest downfall, and then them scoring two tries and we only one – I don’t think we can moan about anything but say well done to them.”
New Zealand on the other hand gave away just half the amount of penalties at only 4 compared to South Africa’s 9. Captain Keiran Read said after the match “It was a conscious decision by us not to give away penalties.”
Afterwards New Zealand halfback Aaron Smith – who played an excellent match – said “the game’s all about moments”, and this opening match of Pool B was no exception – two opportunistic tries, Mo’unga’s tackle on Kolbe and two unforced errors by the Boks gave the All Blacks the six points that sealed the match.
But the game is also about the players. Every All Black played with attitude, heart and commitment an the mid-field was rock solid. Beauden Barrett played a brilliant game, and the crucial captain’s performance by Read – both physically and as a leader – settled the players down by encouraging them to “take a breath”.
Ardie Savea was everywhere running at an incredible work-rate, Aaron Smith’s passes were like the bullet trains and Mo’unga’s deft touches and ability to read the game provided the All Blacks with a range of tactical kicking and plays that will make the other teams in the competition rethink how best to play against them.
And let’s not forget the bench that came on at the business end of the game – the massive experience of TJ Penenara, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith. The energy, speed and skills of Codie Taylor and Shannon Frizell in the forwards. This was a world-class performance by the All Blacks.
Importantly however, coach Steve Hansen said afterwards, “there’s still plenty of stuff to work on.” Sonny Bill observed that “we played well tonight, in patches, but a performance like that isn’t going to win us the tournament. We’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding.”
This All Blacks team is focused and has a plan. It has sent a message. Yes there is still stuff to work on, but there are games now against Canada, Namibia and Italy in which to address this stuff before New Zealand’s most probable quarter-final match on October 20th.
The rugby world will take notice.