Friday 18 October 2019

Black beauty trumps beast in epic

Classy New Zealand withstand massive early onslaught from powerful Boks to edge thriller

Powerhouse: George Bridge of New Zealand is tackled as he goes for the line during the All Blacks’ Group B against South Africa in Yokohama. Photo: Getty Images
Powerhouse: George Bridge of New Zealand is tackled as he goes for the line during the All Blacks’ Group B against South Africa in Yokohama. Photo: Getty Images
Sevu Reece of the All Blacks offloads the ball. Photo: Getty
Franco Mostert of South Africa wins a line out against Kieran Read of New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

For the opening 20 minutes, it looked as if we were watching the champions-elect and then out of nowhere, New Zealand woke from their slumber and conjured up a blistering four-minute spell that left no doubt that they are still the team to beat.

Steve Hansen had issued a warning when he claimed that if his side play to the their potential, they will be tough to stop. South Africa briefly threatened, but Hansen's assessment was spot on.

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So many questions have been asked of the All Blacks, particularly after a stuttering Rugby Championship campaign. They came up with all the answers on a night that will live long in the memory as one of the great World Cup pool games.

A chorus of the Fields of Athenry even got an airing amongst the 63,649 inside the stadium.

It was fast, it was frenetic - at times the skill level was sublime. These two teams could well be back here at the same stadium on November 2. The bad news is, if Ireland are to advance from their pool, they will meet either New Zealand or South Africa. Gulp!

Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are here in Japan, but last night's enthralling win was further evidence that this is a new era. It felt like a statement.

Hansen has stuck with two playmakers and it paid off as Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga shifted seamlessly as first receiver. This was two of the best in the business at their most influential.

For all New Zealand's brilliance, the Springboks will have plenty of regrets because they had rattled the All Blacks with their ferocious work at the breakdown and blitzing line-speed.

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The Kiwis looked shell-shocked, but that's often how they want to appear, luring the opposition into a false sense of security. In the blink of an eye, they turned the game on its head. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Jacques Nienaber did a brilliant job during his spell as Munster's defence coach. It looked as though he had come up with another masterplan in this contest but Barrett and Co had other ideas.

The Boks were crying out for more attacking invention and even though they had the most exciting player on the pitch in Cheslin Kolbe, they were far too over-reliant on the sensational winger.

As soon as the All Blacks withstood the early onslaught, South Africa were devoid of ideas as their power game was matched by the likes of Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett, who put in huge shifts.

By the time the latter had sauntered over for a 28th-minute try, it was South Africa who were scratching their heads. The difference between them and the defending champions is that they were unable to come up with a Plan B.

Rassie Erasmus has undoubtedly done a superb job since he returned home, but that inability to unearth something different when it mattered most was a criticism, which was often aimed at him during his time at Munster.

His side's awesome power game will be enough to beat most teams in the world but if you can match it, as the Kiwis did, they are beatable.

If Ireland do end up meeting South Africa in the quarter-final, Joe Schmidt's men are going to have to find a way to go toe-to-toe with that brutal physicality.

It had all started so well for Erasmus' men as Handre Pollard put them on the board with an early penalty. When the outhalf missed a gifted chance to add another three points from in front of the posts midway through the half, it felt like a big moment. And so it proved.

A loose pass from Faf de Klerk put his side under all sorts of pressure and Mo'unga was quickest to react as he hacked the ball through - only a last-ditch tackle from Makazole Mapimpi stopped the outhalf from scoring.

Mapimpi then cynically killed the ball, but somehow referee Jerome Garces kept his yellow card in his pocket. Mo'unga put the Kiwis on the board with the resulting straightforward kick.

New Zealand were finding their groove and they showed what they are all about when they ruthlessly punished a sloppy kick after 24 minutes.

Sevu Reece made the initial burst and when Savea ran over Willie le Roux, the ball was worked to the opposite side of the pitch where Beauden Barrett delicately offloaded to George Bridge, who finished well on his debut. Mo'unga added the extras for a 7-3 lead.

Four minutes later, they were in again. This time it was Anton Lienert-Brown who provided the spark with a searing line break. Scott Barrett showed great speed and awareness to keep up and the lock was rewarded with a fine try, even if his dive over the whitewash needs some work.

Mo'unga missed a chance to extend the half-time lead, but, as it was, a 17-3 advantage was a job well done considering how the game started. Six minutes after the restart, Mo'unga turned try-saver six when he brilliantly stopped Kolbe scoring in the corner.

"It was a match-winner," All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said. "It was a big moment and that's what rugby is all about, winning the moments."

Pieter-Steph du Toit wouldn't be stopped shortly after as he took advantage of the All Blacks being asleep at the ruck. Pollard's conversion was followed by a clever drop goal as South Africa clawed their way back into the game.

Le Roux should have put Kolbe over in the corner on 53 minutes but his pass was woeful and the chance went. That lack of a clinical edge cost them as two more penalties, one each from Mo'unga and Barrett, sealed the deal.

No team has ever won the World Cup after losing a pool game. That is the scale of the challenge that South Africa now face. As for the All Blacks, it will take a seriously good team to stop them going all the way again. Same as it ever was.

Scorers - New Zealand: Bridge, S Barrett 1 try each; Mo'unga 2 cons & 2 pen; B Barrett 1 pen. South Africa: Do Toit 1 try; Pollard 1 con, 1 pen & 1 drop goal.

New Zealand: B Barrett; S Reece, A Lienert-Brown, R Crotty (S B William 51), G Bridge; R Mo'unga (B Smith 67), A Smith (TJ Perenara 61); J Moody (Tuungafasi 51, D Coles (C Taylor h-t), N Laulala (A Ta'avao 51); S Whitelock, S Barrett (S Frizell 76); A Savea, S Cane (P Tuipulotu h-t), K Read.

South Africa: W le Roux; C Kolbe, L Am (J Kriel 57), D de Allenda, M Mapimpi; H Pollard, F de Klerk (H Jantjies 73); S Kitshoff (T Mtawarira 67), M Marx (M Mbonambi 61), F Malherbe (T Nyakane 76); E Etzebeth (RG Snyman 70), F Mostert; S Kolisi (F Louw 51), P-S du Toit, D Vermeulen.

Referee: J Garces (France)

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