Awesome All Blacks a class apart
It wasn't just the 40 points or even the six tries they ran in with bewildering pace that so impressed. It was the complete package -- forward supremacy, great creativity and inventiveness as well as the speed at which they played the game -- that hallmarked this New Zealand performance in Wellington.
If ever a team sent a warning to the watching rugby world just 39 days before the start of the seventh Rugby World Cup, this surely was it.
Adversity for South African rugby men does not come much bigger than a 40-7 thrashing by their greatest rivals. Inevitably, it was as one-sided a contest as a scoreline of six tries to one suggests. The weakened Springboks, a side of no combinations, little experience and no communication, were out-muscled up front and completely out-paced by the All Blacks.
The New Zealand attack, so clever and inventive, cut the South African defence to pieces on many occasions and the margin could have been even greater.
Keeping the ball in hand, basing your philosophy on attack and creativity by means of running rugby has been an alien philosophy for Springbok coach Peter de Villiers. He wanted big forwards to bash away up front and a pair of kicking half-backs to keep the ball in front of the overtly physical pack.
So obsessed was de Villiers with this game plan that the alternative, made increasingly propitious by the changes in law interpretations, was all but ignored. Yet a country like New Zealand did not ignore it.
Their coaches saw the immense possibilities of such a creative game and the effect has been startling. They and the attack-minded Australians have left South African rugby far behind.
In Wellington on Saturday, the two very different paths chosen by these countries were laid bare. As New Zealand scored six tries off the back of forward supremacy, the under-strength South Africans had nowhere to go in terms of their conventional game plan.
For if your forwards are beaten physically up front and out-paced, then cover out wide will be in desperately short supply. It was no coincidence that five of the New Zealand tries were scored by backs, four of them by wings Corey Jane and Zac Guildford. Replacement Colin Slade got the last, 10 minutes from the end.
With a World Cup now so close, the die is cast. South Africa must stick to the rigid, restrictive game plan advocated by their coach for the last four years. It is far, far too late to change.
The pity is that the eyes of the South African national coaches have been closed to the possibilities of an expansive game plan under the modern game. So they must play another World Cup wearing blinkers. New Zealand made the danger of that clear at the weekend. Their rugby, forged on speed, vision and creative instinct, has expanded while South Africa has atrophied.
New Zealand's current supremacy in world rugby owes its status to two key factors -- enlightened coaching and strength in depth. Here, the All Blacks, who led 18-7 at half time, could afford to withdraw Conrad Smith and send on Sonny Bill Williams.
And this coruscating performance, of three tries in each half against John Smit's single try for the 'Boks after half an hour, was achieved without supposed first-choice men like Keven Mealamu, Kieran Read, Tony Woodcock, Owen Franks and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
No other country could afford to leave that kind of talent in the stand and still impress so much.
As South Africa flew home yesterday, the question in their minds must have been have they handed the All Blacks a huge psychological advantage on the eve of the World Cup? Leaving their strongest side at home was deemed necessary. But it could backfire on the ailing world champions.
New Zealand -- M Muliaina; C Jane, C Smith (S Williams 53), M Nonu (C Slade 66), Z Guildford; D Carter, J Cowan (P Weepu 56); W Crockett, A Hore (C Flynn 72), B Franks (J Afoa 42-49); S Whitelock (J Hoeta), A Williams; J Kaino (Messam 56), R McCaw, A Thomson.
South Africa -- M Steyn (C Mcleod 66); B Basson (O Ndugane 66), A Jacobs (W Olivier 67), J de Jongh, L Mvovo; P Lambie, R Pienaar; D Greyling (CJ van der Linde 47), J Smit, W Kruger (C Ralepelle 47); G Mostert (R Kankowski 74), A Hargreaves; D Stegmann (J Deysel 58), J Deysel (A Johnson 48), D Rossouw.
Ref -- A Rolland (Ireland)