All Blacks edge Springboks to take control of Pool B as World Cup clash of the titans delivers on the hype
New Zealand 23 South Africa 13
IF it really suits Steve Hansen's men to have people think their bid for a Rugby World Cup three-peat is built on shaky foundations, then he'll have left Yokohama a happy man.
The All Blacks were demonstrably better than another of the multitude of hotly-tipped contenders and yet their 23-13 win over the Springboks still left the sold-out crowd feeling like there would have to be more to come.
In a game red-ringed on rugby calendars for a two and a half years, an opening weekend clash between the two greatest rivals in the sport figured to clear a murky picture of rugby's world order somewhat. Instead we know little more than who is likely to top Pool B and who is likely to play the winners of Ireland's.
New Zealand did the vast majority of their damage in just three and a half minutes of the opening 40, but otherwise only showed flashes. South Africa started the better, and rallied from what seemed like an All Black sucker punch but their best attacks were produced by the something-from-nothing spark of Cheslin Kolbe.
Under the circumstances, they could afford little else but Rassie Erasmus' Boks had dominated the opening exchanges, from the thunderous breakdown work of Siya Kolisi and Pieter Steph du Toit, to the roving threat posed by Willie Le Roux, they looked every inch a contender to the throne. The All Blacks, given little room to operate, seemed rattled. The Springboks system affords the opposition space outside, but the effectiveness of their work in the more narrow exchanges left it impossible to reach. Errors from New Zealand were regular, as South Africa dominated territory
After a first quarter that zipped by, they led by three and should have done so by twice the margin.
Prop Steven Kitschoff won a breakdown penalty after two minutes, which Handre Pollard stuck accurately from distance, but when the same man had another more straight forward opportunity his effort came back off the post.
While they've felt more infallible during this cycle though, the back-to-back champs again proved that they only need a sniff.
International Rugby Newsletter
A Faf de Klerk pass found green grass rather than a green jersey and Richie Mo'unga reacted the fastest. Makazole Mapimpi's efforts to deny him the try brought a penalty to level things, seconds later the All Blacks were ahead.
As New Zealand finally found the frequency on their kicking radar, Mo'unga's inventive crossfield effort found a way to exploit the acres on offer down the touchline. Sevu Reece gathered and a few phases later, Beauden Barrett's offload from the tackle left George Bridge with work to do but he gathered well and slid across the whitewash. When Pollard struggled under the high ball soon after, Anton Leinart-Brown's run against the grain created space for Scott Barrett running off his shoulder.
A clinical 17-point blitz. Half the world away, those searching for comfort in the familiar found it. While Fiji's razzle-dazzle and France's flakiness earlier in the day had offered compelling arguments, is there anything more ingrained in a rugby country's DNA than the Kiwi ability to turn a game on its head in the time it takes to boil a kettle?
South Africa would bring it back to within a score early in the second-half as Pieter-Steph du Toit barged over.
Having looked like they'd punched themselves out, South Africa found a second wind - a stolen line-out piggy-backed onto a penalty before Handre Pollard's drop goal cut the deficit further still.
With 15 minutes remaining, Read pointed to the posts when awarded a penalty, Mo'unga again showing his worth to this side as a goal-kicker by bisecting the uprights.
That was to be his last act, replaced by Ben Smith soon after but Beauden Barrett filled in capably when called upon to knock over a straightforward penalty.
There was still time for Kolbe to go on one last electrifying run but in the end matters remained 23-13, the largest margin of victory between these two sides since 2017.
To have a better idea of whether one, neither, or both of these sides will be back here in six weeks' time, requires a longer wait.
NEW ZEALAND: B Barrett, S Reece, A Lienert-Brown, R Crotty, G Bridge; R Mo'unga, A Smith; J Moody, D Coles, N Laulala; S Whitelock, S Barrett; A Savea, S Cane, K Read (C)
REPLACEMENTS: C Taylor (for Coles, 40) Patrick Tuipulotu (for Cane, 40) SB Williams (for R Crotty, 50) O Tuungafasi (for Moody, 50), A Ta'avao (for Laulala, 50) TJ Perenara (for A Smith, 61) B Smith (for Mo'unga, 77) S Frizzell (for S Barrett, 75)
SOUTH AFRICA:W Le Roux; C Kolbe, L Am, D de Allende, M Mapimpi; H Pollard, F de Klerk; S Kitschoff, M Marx, F Malherbe; E Etzebeth, F Mostert; S Kolisi (C), PS du Toit, D Vermeulen.
REPLACEMENTS: F Louw (for Kolisi, 50) T Nyakane (for Malherbe, 54), J Kriel (for Am, 54), B Mbonambi (for Marx, 61), T Mtawarira (for Kitschoff, 66) RG Snyman (for Etzebeth, 70), H Jantjies ( for de Klerk, 71)
REFEREE: J GARCES
MAN OF THE MATCH: B Barrett (NZ)