The Rugby World Cup in Japan is well and truly underway now, with the New Zealand All Blacks opening their campaign in the best possible way with a win over fellow contenders the Springboks of South Africa.
The All Blacks dominated proceedings early, taking a 17-3 lead into halftime. And while South Africa managed to get back into the game somewhat with a strong start to the second half, the All Blacks weren’t to be denied, with penalty goals late in the game to Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett keeping the game out of South Africa’s reach.
Here are five talking points from the game.
1. All Blacks seal top spot in Pool B
With Round 1 of the Rugby World Cup Group Stage yet to be completed, this may seem a bit premature. Yet given the make-up of Pool B, it’s difficult to see anyone but the All Blacks topping this pool and booking a date with the runners up of Pool A in the quarter-finals (likely to be the loser of Sunday’s Ireland versus Scotland fixture).
The fact that the Springboks were unable to get within seven points of the All Blacks and acquire a bonus point makes this prediction all the more likely. Even if the All Blacks were somehow to lose one of their remaining three pool games, the Springboks would have to overtake them on points differential in order to finish at the top of the pool.
Joining South Africa and New Zealand in Pool B are Six Nations cellar-dwellers Italy and minnow nations Canada and Namibia. This means that nothing short of an earth-shattering upset can see New Zealand finish lower than first in this pool.
2. Errors under the high ball and ill-discipline cost South Africa
The Springboks showed some good signs in this game and were not even close to physically overwhelmed by their opposition.
Not only that, but the South Africans had New Zealand under immense pressure in the first 20 minutes of the game with their blitz defence and threatened regularly in attack in the second half.
However, errors in the first half caused South Africa to lose their grip on the game.
Aaron Smith’s box kicks proved too much for the Springboks to handle, a knock-on in the air by Duane Vermeulen leading directly to the linebreak that sparked George Bridge’s try in the 22nd minute, while another mistake in the air, this time from Handré Pollard, gave New Zealand the possession that led to their 26th-minute try to Scott Barrett.
In the second half, it was penalties that cost the Springboks.
After Pollard’s drop goal in the 58th minute, the comeback was looking good as the Springboks trailed by just 17 points to 13.
Unfortunately for South Africa, two late penalties in goal-kicking range saw New Zealand extend their lead to ten by the 71st minute, allowing them to play the final nine minutes on their terms with an easier lead to defend.
3. The Mo’unga/Barrett combination works a treat
It may have had some issues at first, but the initial teething problems of the Richie Mo’unga/Beauden Barrett flyhalf/fullback combination, last seen in New Zealand’s shock loss to the Wallabies in Bledisloe 1, are well and truly a thing of the past now.
Mo’unga’s general play kicking was brilliant, putting the Springboks under plenty of pressure throughout the game. At the same time, Barrett looked extremely comfortable at the back in what was a man-of-the-match performance from the New Zealand fullback.
Barrett looked particularly dangerous playing wider off the ruck in attack and set up his side’s first try by running at a fragmented Springboks defence, drawing defenders in and getting an offload away to Bridge who scored untouched.
Most importantly, these two players with very similar skill sets knew their roles and were able to stay out of each other’s way and complement each other well. Their ability to do this throughout the tournament will go a long way towards New Zealand lifting the William Web Ellis Cup for the third time in a row.
4. Cheslin Kolbe a shining light for the Springboks
There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to like for the Springboks in this game. They started each half well but unfortunately were unable to maintain the intensity for long periods of time.
One thing to like though was the performance of Cheslin Kolbe, the small-statured right-winger who was one of South Africa’s best in this game.
His break down the right wing in the 46th minute got his team on the front foot. While he was unable to ground the ball despite coming within metres of the All Blacks’ line, his break set in motion the events that led directly to Pieter-Steph du Toit being able to pick the ball up uncontested at the ruck and dive over to score under the posts in the 48th minute.
Kolbe actually looked dangerous throughout the second half, making a second break in the 75th minute and running for a grand total of 118m from just nine runs. With numbers like that, it was definitely a World Cup debut for the young winger to be proud of.
5. New Zealand are deserving favourites
Again, this may be a bit premature given that at the time of writing we are yet to see northern hemisphere giants England, Wales or Ireland compete.
But the Wallabies were unconvincing against Fiji, trailing for much of the match, while the Springboks were good in patches in this game, but still unable to match it with the mighty All Blacks.
When you look at this side on paper, it’s clear that they simply have no weaknesses. This is evidenced through the quality of players who didn’t have to do much tonight.
Having a player as good as TJ Perenara (he would be starting halfback in any other team in this competition) coming off the bench is huge as it ensures that Aaron Smith isn’t under pressure to play big minutes as New Zealand lose nothing by replacing him late in games.
Then there’s Sonny Bill Williams. He was admittedly quiet in his 30-minute stint. Yet the value of having someone like him – the ultimate professional in every sense of the word – in the squad cannot be overstated, especially for the young blokes in the side.
Or how about Shannon Frizell, the man-mountain who scores tries for fun in Super Rugby. Then there’s Rieko Ioane, who wasn’t even in the 22-man squad for this game.
The All Blacks have so much firepower it’s not even funny. And if you think they were good tonight, mark my words coach Steve Hansen will have them absolutely primed by the time the knock out stage comes about. That’s when they’ll really set the rugby world on fire.
So what do you think Roarers? Did I miss anything from last night’s game? Let me know in the comments what you thought the biggest talking points of the match were.