Richie McCaw inspires All Blacks to Ellis Park win over South Africa after epic encounter
Another stone cold classic at Ellis Park between the World No 1 and No 2 sides. Another reminder of just how far New Zealand are in front of not just South Africa but every other team on the planet.
No other side could have weathered the pressure they withstood from South Africa in a 15-minute period midway through the second half in which they lost Sam Whitelock to the sin-bin. They held firm. What came next was inevitable as night follows day as Richie McCaw, in his last appearance on South African soil, scored from a wonderfully executed lineout move.
By no means was this a poor South Africa performance. They played with a ferocious intensity and their centre partnership Jesse Kriel and Damian De Allende, who have just five caps between them, outshone Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, rugby’s most capped midfield pairing. Lood de Jager, the rookie lock, was also outstanding.
But they could not capitalise on several periods of ascendency and their bench could match the impact that Victor Vito and Malakai Fekitoa made for New Zealand, who closed a game out they had a disputable right to win. It was an enthralling contest, played at a speed and physicality far beyond what we saw in the Six Nations, and was almost of the same calibre as the 2013 and 2014 humdingers in Johannesburg. Only the sight of uncontested scrums once South Africa lost their two tighthead props spoilt the spectacle.
The game started at a hell of a lick – the All Blacks’ ambition to play from every coordinate of the pitch being matched by the Springboks’ aggression. Those styles collided to produce the opening try after fly half Lima Sopoaga had settled some early nerves on his New Zealand with a penalty. An excellent kick chase resulted in Kieran Read being turned over by Bismarck du Plessis. South Africa spread the play through Schalk Burger to Kriel who fed the ball back inside for Willie le Roux to gallop over.
South Africa, with their three opensides including forgotten man Heinrich Brussow in their back row, were out hustling New Zealand at the breakdown. Handre Pollard added a penalty but their advantage should have been greater before they fell victim to a classic All Blacks sucker punch in the last play of the half. New Zealand had only just prevented their line being breached for a second time when Sopoaga led a breakout and demonstrated excellent dexterity to pop a basketball-style pass to Ben Smith to level the scores.
The tempo did not let up in the second half as South Africa restored their lead thanks to a wonderful line from Kriel making fools of Conrad Smith and Nonu in the process. Back came New Zealand. Fekitoa, freshly on as a replacement for Nonu, created a moment of hesitation in the Springbok midfield with a little shuffle of his feet and that’s all it took to send Dane Coles, the fastest hooker on the planet, through a gap leaving Le Roux on his backside.
Then came the period on which the game hinged. The big beasts of South Africa rumbled forward and de Jager was only millimetres short of reaching the whitewash. A wonderful break by Le Roux had South Africa hammering at the door. Whitelock took a card for the team during some desperate defending.
A third Springbok try looked inevitable once they got a nudge on at the scrum only for Vincent Koch to knock on. And just like that the chance was gone. New Zealand controlled territory and possession in the final 15 minutes and it was fitting that McCaw, the captain, would deliver the killer blow. From a five-metre lineout, South Africa were anticipating resisting a maul at the tail only for Codie Taylor, the replacement hooker, to throw short to McCaw at the front who plunged over the line.
South Africa: W le Roux (P Lambie 62); JP Pietersen, J Kriel, D de Allende, B Habana; H Pollard, R Pienaar (C Reinach, 71); T Mtawarria (A Strauss, 69), B du Plessis, J Du Plessis (V Koch, 41 (T Nyakane, 61)), E Etzebeth, L de Jager (F van der Merwe, 59), H Brussow, F Louw (W Whiteley, 41), S Burger.
New Zealand: I Dagg (B Barrett, 51); B Smith, C Smith, M Nonu (M Fekitoa, 47), C Piutau; L Sopoaga, A Smith (TJ Perenara, 64); T Woodcock (W Crockett, 49), D Coles (C Taylor, 59), O Franks (B Franks, 56), B Retallick, J Broadhurst (S Whitelock, 41), L Messam (V Vito, 56), R McCaw, K Read.
Sin bin: Whitelock.
Scoring sequence: 0-3, Sopoaga pen; 5-3, Le Roux try; 7-3, Pollard con; 10-3, Pollard pen; 10-8, B Smith try; 10-10, Sopoaga con; 15-10, Kriel try; 17-10, Pollard con; 17-15, Coles try; 17-17, Sopoaga con; 20-17, Pollard pen; 20-22, McCaw try, 20-24, Sopoaga con; 20-27, Sopoaga pen