South Africa 21 - New Zealand 26
23 June, 2007
The All Blacks ran out a last quarter victory against a tenacious Springbok side that pushed the men in black to the the limits through some desperate defence and borderline off-ball tactics. But it was the fitness level and footballing brilliance of the All Blacks that hammered the first nail into a buoyant South African Tri Nation campaign that silenced the patriotic 50 thousand spectators in the dying minutes of the game at the Asba stadium in Durban.
To all intents and purposes, the All Blacks did not play well for the first 60 minutes of this mouth watering test match. Although the New Zealanders had possession and territorial advantage plus ascendency in the scrum and parity (eventually) in the scrappy lineouts for most of the game, it was their butterfingered handling errors that let them down (14 times in all) throughout the match. Credit must also be given to the Springboks for defending ferociously and forcing star fly half Daniel Carter and his backline into making several unforced errors.
While Dan was having an off day with his boot, Richie McCaw played a tremendous role in boosting his troops to follow his heroic and skillful example. Again, he was everywhere, hindered only when being targeted for many borderline and cynical assaults off the ball by his Springbok counterparts. This continued agressive bullying of the New Zealand captain is an issue for the game and also for McCaw's personal safety and needs to be addressed by match officials in the future. Referee Alain Rolland for the most part, did a commendable job in a passionately physical match. One can't help but feel however that Graham Henry, when pushed further about Roland's various inconsistencies throughout the match (giving various warnings but then not following through by carding offending players when appropriate), was making a political stand with his eye firmly on World Cup honours by insisting that the Irishman was one of the top two referees in the world (who is the other I wonder?) and refused to be drawn into a Laporte/Woodward like slanging match on some of the inconsistent decisions throughout the match.
When the going got tough however, the All Blacks showed their mettle and for once they ground out a win while coming from behind on South African soil. At the beginning of the final quarter and with the Boks ahead by 18 points to 12, Mealamu was penalised allowing Percy (Monty) Montgomery to kick over a no brainer punt straight through the posts. For most on New Zealand couches in the early hours of Saturday morning all hope was lost. However, this All Black outfit had different ideas and showing belief and grittiness in adversity they lifted the tempo and urgency of their game, catching the quickly tiring Springboks unaware. Their pace became dynamic in the final ten and by taking quick lineout throws and spreading the ball wide they punished the tired Boks through two inspirational tries that to the uneducated onlooker appeared rather simple and lucky.
However, this was no luck. Commentators the world over may be waiting (and wishing) for this NZ team that has reigned supreme for the last four years to fall over at the final hurdle, and while this is always going to be a possiblity, last night's showing in an exciting, bruising encounter allowed this All Black outfit to live up to its billing. They were clinical and hard when required and showed the mental toughness that has so often been lacking in New Zealand teams of the past. Henry himself, in a flippant post-match remark said this New Zealand side could aim for a 40% improvement in the coming weeks. If that isn't ominous for teams hoping to take on this conditioned, slick All Blacks side, then I don't know what is.
New Zealand 26 (Richie McCaw, Joe Rokocoko tries; Daniel Carter 3 pen, 2 con; Aaron Mauger dropped goal) South Africa 21 (Schalk Burger, Butch James tries; Percy Montgomery 2 pen, con; Ruan Pienaar pen). Halftime: 6-11.