South Africa entered their latest Rugby Championship with some questioning their elevated status in rugby’s world order with the International Rugby Board currently ranking them as the second best side in the world.
Two narrow victories over Argentina and a defeat to Australia in recent weeks suggested all was not well as their southern hemisphere rivals appeared to be making timely and significant development with the Rugby World Cup almost exactly a year away.
In such circumstances another defeat would normally turn up the heat on coach Heyneken Meyer and his players but there was enough evidence in their narrow 14-10 loss to the All Blacks in Wellington to suggest that not only do they remain second only to their old rivals in the sport’s pecking order but may also lead the chase to depose New Zealand as world champions next year.
Against an All Blacks side that continues to set the standard and is unbeaten in their last 20 outings and who have not tasted defeat on home soil for five years, they produced a brave and bold approach that contained the most potent attacking force in the game for long periods while at the same time giving them plenty to think about in defence.
They showed that you must relish the physical battle against New Zealand with the double tackle by the incredibly impressive Duane Vermeulen and Marcell Coetzee on Richie McCaw the perfect example of the kind of game-defining commitment required to rock the All Blacks on their heels.
Watch tackle and defence sessions by Graham Henry, Courtney Lawes and Sam Warburton
At the same time the likes of fly-half Handre Pollard, fullback Willie le Roux and winger Cornal Hendricks offered a game-breaking cutting edge with ball in hand. Pollard in particular was pivotal in providing the attacking spark that led to the opening try of the game that cut the All Blacks open in a way that we rarely see.
Add in a lung-busting work-rate, perhaps best summed up by Le Roux’ efforts to chase down a kick ahead from New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and deny the scrum-half an easy score, and you have a formidable threat.
With a fired up Boks side breathing fire in defence it was always going to take something special from the All Blacks to unlock them and so it proved. A cross-kick from fly-half Aaron Cruden hung tantalisingly for No.8 Kieran Read who rose to the challenge and in doing so he over-shadowed Boks skipper Jean de Villiers who, on the occasion of his 100th Test cap, found little in his vast international experience to enable him to counter the aerial assault.
With the Boks’ defence stretched the finishing touches were aptly provided by McCaw who, having spotted the opportunity, timed his support run perfectly to collect the ball and dive across in the corner for his third try in as many games – the most prolific try scoring run of his international career. “Out-jumped, out-played and out-thought,”- was touchline reporter Ian Smith’s perfect summation having witnessed ‘rugby genius’ first hand.
Learn from The Rugby Site contributor Richie McCaw
With the result still in the balance, the Springboks piled forward in search of their first victory over the All Blacks since 2011 and their first on Kiwi soil since their win in Hamilton in 2009 – the last time New Zealand were beaten at home.
They trailed by just four points when they were awarded what appeared a relatively simple penalty deep inside the New Zealand half. A successful kick would bring them to within a point and a buoyant Boks side would be fancied to earn a similar field position and perhaps a game-winning opportunity in the six minutes that were remaining in the game?
But no. Fuelled by belief in his side and confidence that they could deliver a knock-out blow as they did in such a position against Argentina last month, and maybe fearful that an invite back to the All Blacks’ 22 may not be forthcoming in the closing moments, De Villiers pointed to the corner for the lineout.
The defensive door would be slammed shut but as is their way the Boks rallied once more and earned one final shot by turning the ball over at an All Blacks scrum. But their composure deserted them in the dying moments of the game, as it did for Argentina in the closing moments of their narrow defeat to Australia with opportunity knocking, with possession and ultimately the match, conceded to their rivals.
But this defeat – the closest they have come to beating New Zealand since their last victory over them in 2011 – remains a step forward. Only three sides have come closer to ending New Zealand’s impressive five-year unbeaten run at home and perhaps surprisingly they are all from the northern hemisphere. Most famously, Stephen Donald penalty gave New Zealand a narrow but most welcome 8-7 victory over France in the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final in Auckland in 2011.
Ireland were denied what would have been only their second draw against New Zealand – they have never beaten the All Blacks – by a late Dan Carter drop goal in Christchurch in 2012 that gave the host a 22-19 victory. And most recently, a late rally brought England back to within a point only in Dunedin back in June but they would eventually fall to a 28-27 defeat.
The home leg of their Rugby Championship campaign should bring yet further cause for hope for South Africa and perhaps a victory over their fiercest rivals.
What did you think of South Africa’s performance? Do they have the ability to beat the All Blacks when the sides meet again on the 4th October?
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