New Zealand overturned a half-time deficit to claim a 14-10 victory over South Africa in a thrilling Rugby Championship Test at Westpac Stadium on Saturday.
Only two tries were scored – one a piece – but the clash between the two best sides in the world lived up to it’s billing as the All Blacks were forced to hang on in a nail-biting finish to an outstanding contest.
No complaints about the officials this week, only kudos to all those who contributed to a classic clash between old foes.
The result extends South Africa’s five-year drought against the All Blacks on Kiwi soil and leaves New Zealand clear at the top of the tournament standings.
Like John Smit and Bryan Habana before him, Jean de Villiers’ 100th Test ended in a narrow defeat, but it was almost a very different story as the Boks produced their best performance of the year.
New Zealand dominated the territory (over 70 percent) and possession statistics in the first half but it was the Springboks who led 7-6 at the interval thanks to a try from wing Cornal Hendricks.
The hosts had uncharacteristically made a handful of errors in the opposition 22 and would have been frustrated by their lack of return from opportunities against an excellent green and gold defence.
Richie McCaw’s third try of the tournament put New Zealand back in front after the break but a Handré Pollard drop-goal set up a grandstand finish as they teams entered the final quarter neck and neck.
Crucially, the South African set-piece, traditionally such an important part of the Bok game, was functioning in top gear. The line-out that had misfired in the opening weeks was rock solid with Victor Matfield and Eben Etzebeth untouchable in the air in the first hour.
A good early scrum from South Africa offered encouragement to the visitors, but it was the All Blacks’ ability to keep ball in hand that meant New Zealand enjoyed the lion’s share of field position and possession in the opening stages.
Aaron Cruden got the scoreboard ticking after Bryan Habana was penalised on the deck.
However the Springboks were first to get over the whitewash as Pollard provided the platform for Hendricks to score his fifth try in seven starts. It was the young fly-half’s excellent kick into the corner that put the Boks into the red zone and it was his inside pass to put Hendricks clear in midfield that saw South Africa take the lead. Pollard added the extras to make it 7-3 at the end of the first quarter.
Richie McCaw was held up over the line shortly afterwards but Cruden’s second penalty – against Ruan Pienaar for being offside – reduced the deficit to a single point.
Another potential went a-begging for the New Zealand as Aaron Smith couldn’t collect Kieran Read’s offload with halftime looming. Cruden sent a penalty after the hooter wide, leaving the world champs trailing at half time.
South Africa lost Ruan Pienaar to a knee injury just before the break and Ma’a Nonu did not return from the changing rooms, meaning both backlines started the second half with a different look and feel.
The All Blacks moved back in front when Cruden’s cross-field kick out wide found Read, who offloaded to his skipper to touch down in the corner. Cruden’s conversion effort was off target, leaving New Zealand leading 11-7.
A series of lost line-outs had the Boks on the back foot and only Willie le Roux’s pace saved his team a try as he beat Aaron Smith in a footrace to dot down.
Pollard slotted a cheeky drop-goal under pressure to bring SA to within a point as they cashed in on a rare opportunity to attack.
Pollard put a long-range penalty attempt just wide but Beauden Barrett made no such mistake after Tendai Mtawarira didn’t roll away giving New Zealand a four-point lead heading into the final ten minutes.
Those final minutes were dominated by the visitors as De Villiers twice chose to go for a winning try over a penalty. But the hosts resisted wave after wave of pressure to hold onto a hard-earned victory.
For New Zealand:
Pens: Cruden 2, Barrett
For South Africa: