The Springboks lost the first half of their Pool B match against the All Blacks in the 2019 Rugby World Cup badly: 3-17.
In a four-minute span, two tries were scored by New Zealand and the complexion of the game changed. Even though the Boks won the second half 10-6, the deficit was too great.
In the last four Tests between these great rivals, the margin of the final score was two points or less. A big reason for that was South Africa not letting New Zealand dominate the first half. At Newlands, in 2017, the All Blacks only scored eight points in the first half.
At Wellington in 2018, the Boks took a seven-point lead into oranges. It was 6-6 in Pretoria at half-time in the return fixture. In 2019, the 16-16 draw was preceded by a one-point Kiwi lead at the break.
Several myths exist about how the All Blacks build wins against the Boks. One is that they ‘always catch the bigger, tired Boks at the death,’ and another is that they run from all over the show.
The reality is that Bok wins over the All Blacks are almost always built on a strong first half, there is no meaningful size differential, with Rassie Erasmus in charge there is no fitness gap, and when they win, the All Blacks kick more and they kick better than South Africa.
So, how did the All Blacks win the first half by a crucial 14 points, and take control of Pool B? With a superb kick-and-pounce game. Three All Blacks (9, 10, and 15) kicked 15 times.
Of the 15 kicks, a remarkable seven were regained by New Zealand. South Africa could not retain possession of the last six kicks in the half, and three of those lost kicks resulted in 17 All Black points. New Zealand kicked out of hand in an attacking position seven times.
If we classify each kick as having one of these outcomes: positive for New Zealand, positive for South Africa, or neutral, the breakdown is: New Zealand eight, neutral three and SA four. That’s brutally effective footy.
Number of kicks
Types of kicks
|Category of kick||Number||Regained|
|Penalty kicked to touch||1||0|
|Loose ball kicked on ground||1||1|
Box kicks and cross kicks were particularly effective as a means of winning points or regaining the ball in positions that were awkward for the aggressive Bok defence. Fans tend to hate the box but seem to only remember the poorly executed kicks. Smith’s were dropping into busy traffic lanes.
And the All Blacks, armed to the teeth with playmakers and true footballers (Barrett, Mo’unga, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Kieran Read, Dane Coles, and the like) were ready to scoop or pounce and bounce and find seams in the momentarily fractured Bok lines.
But the first half of the first half did not go well for the All Blacks. As they tried to build phases with ball in hand, they were consistently forced backward, leading to a sight I have never seen in over a half-century of watching the side.
They produced panicked passes to nobody, a string of hospital passes followed by morgue passes, and an attacking ‘set’ which RobC called the worst ever seen.
It was smart kicking—a commitment to the tactic, even if it did not yield immediate dividends, that pulled the All Blacks back from the brink of being bullied into another white-knuckle Bok test, and gave them those four or five ineffable minutes of joyful rugby madness, and the win.
|1||BBBBB||Chip||NZ 40||Thor recovery||SA 3||SA|
|2||Richie||PK||NZ 30||LO @ SA 30||Nothing||NZ|
|3||Richie||G-O||SA 22||Kolbe mark||Cleared||Neutral|
|4||Smith||Exit||NZ 22||Chargedown||SA ball||SA|
|5||Richie||G-O||NZ 40||Reece tapback||Nothing||NZ|
|6||Richie||Exit||NZ 40||LO for SA||Nothing||SA|
|7||BBBBB||Exit||Ingoal||LO for SA||Nothing||SA|
|8||Richie||Boot||50||Mapimpi ping||3 points||NZ|
|9||Smith||Box||50||Thor drops||NZ ball||NZ|
|10||Richie||Cross||50||Reece catch||7 points||NZ|
|11||Richie||Cross||50||Reece catch||NZ ball||NZ|
|12||Smith||Box||50||Pollard drops||7 points||NZ|
|14||Smith||Exit||NZ 22||LO for SA||Nothing||Neutral|
If you tell the story of the first half using only the kicks as the narrative structure, here it is:
The Ineffective Part (0-3) of the kicking
The Effective Part (17 points)
In the second half, the Boks handled the All Blacks’ kicks better, but the kicks were not as good. The battle was won early on; a superb All Black defence consolidated things in the last half.
Personnel is a big part of this, but so is execution: the All Blacks had aerial experts on the field, and they performed, while the Boks’ best hands players had butterfingers.
If there is a rematch, do you really see Vermeulen and Pollard dropping up-and-unders? Yes, Faf could spray a pass, but even his scramble defence was poor on the breaks from the drops. There is plenty to repair.
If these teams collide again in the final, look for the All Blacks to do what they did in the semi-final at Twickenham in 2015: kick it more than 45 times. That is, until the Boks show they can defuse bombs.