Tuesday 15 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Boks expose weak links in All Blacks' treble bid'

Aaron Smith, Codie Taylor and Ryan Crotty in the New Zealand dressing room after their 23-13 win over South Africa. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Aaron Smith, Codie Taylor and Ryan Crotty in the New Zealand dressing room after their 23-13 win over South Africa. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Watching the All Blacks ramp up through the gears with that familiar, ruthlessness and breathtaking attacking intensity, it was easy to fall into thinking the three-in-a-row is an inevitability.

On Saturday, the world's form team threw everything they had at the world's best and led 3-0 after 20 minutes. Then, the Springboks blinked and by the time they drew breath they'd coughed up a lead they'd never recover from.

South Africa defence consultant Felix Jones before yesterday’s game. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
South Africa defence consultant Felix Jones before yesterday’s game. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Inevitably, the focus rests on the brilliance of this New Zealand team.

Exposed

And yet, watching rivals will have found chinks of light amidst the black magic. South Africa exposed weakness and served a reminder of the vulnerabilities that exist where none did before.

What New Zealand showed is that you need to make your supremacy pay when you have it, because it never lasts for long.

For the opening quarter, the Boks looked like the buzz around them was justified and they had the world champions on the rack.

They won every collision, nailed their passes and put the squeeze on in the scrum.

And yet the scoreboard remained 3-0 when Handre Pollard's penalty came back off the post.

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Within minutes, it was 14-3.

The tries were beautifully constructed, with Steve Hansen's men finding space around Jacques Nienaber's defence by going to their boot.

For the first try, George Bridge got to the ball first and for the first time the Boks were scrambling. Suddenly, on the back foot their decision-making collapsed and their opponents took advantage.

Minutes later, it became clear how much the revved-up start had taken from their lungs as Anton Lienert-Brown stepped inside a couple of tired forwards and found Scott Barrett on his shoulder to score.

By the time they got their second wind off the back of a sensational Cheslin Kolbe carry up the right wing and Pieter-Steph du Toit's try, they were playing catch-up rugby and, while Steve Hansen's men were never truly comfortable, they managed to keep their oldest rivals at arm's length to record a 23-13 victory.

Defeat was never going to be fatal for South Africa, but it did check their momentum. They weren't willing to go into detail about a prospective quarter-final with Ireland, but they'll already be making plans. Nothing that they saw in Italy's win over Namibia will disturb Rassie Erasmus's sleep.

While he danced around the Irish question, he did give one telling line when asked whether he felt New Zealand had put doubts about their ability to defend their title to bed.

"I think people must remember that we are the No 4 or 5 ranked team in the world, so I think we at this stage are not the benchmark to compare teams with," he said.

"When you look at the likes of England, Ireland and Wales; I think New Zealand will have some stiff competition to get to the final still.

"There are teams who can handle their kicking game, specific things they do and might handle it a little better than we did on the day."

Ireland have already beaten this team twice in this World Cup cycle, losing once.

Before they can have a crack at the champions, however, they will have to overcome the Boks after yesterday's impressive win over Scotland put them on course for a date with Erasmus and a his powerful outfit on October 20.

It was also a reminder of how good Joe Schmidt's side can be.

Wales are up this morning, while England gently eased their way into the tournament with a less-than-impressive but heavy defeat of Tonga. France had their moments, but remain a work in progress while Australia had a scare, but got the job done against Fiji.

And, while they struggled at times in the face of the All Blacks' pace, South Africa will draw solace when they look back on their own missed opportunities. "We were 17-3 down against the All Blacks at half-time and fought back to within four; we just couldn't get that last push," out-half Pollard said.

Confidence

"We've been here in the past and we know what we've got to do. There's no panic stations. We're very calm. We've still got the confidence in the group and the coaching staff, so we'll get back Monday, work as hard as we can and there's a long way to go."

The All Blacks will draw confidence from that win and have only enhanced their status as favourites. They could also welcome Brodie Retallick back from injury before the knockouts.

"We've been under pressure a little bit, we had a draw in Wellington playing them, we've had mixed performances between now and the last World Cup," Aaron Smith said. "So it was really great tonight to win the little things that we really wanted to prove we could do well."

And yet Erasmus is right. They are not as far ahead of the pack as they were four and eight years ago. It will take something special to stop them, but keep hold of that trophy for a few more weeks yet.

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