Sport Comment

Thursday 20 June 2019

New Zealand finished game wet, winning and in their element

New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw of the stands with his hands on his hips as the rain falls
New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw of the stands with his hands on his hips as the rain falls

Eddie Butler

Jerome Kaino missed the start of the rain, having eight minutes of his period in the sin-bin to go. South Africa had to take advantage, to take their slender five-point lead into that safe haven of eight-plus, where New Zealand would have to score twice. South Africa needed their guiding light to show them the way. Fourie du Preez, consummate throughout the match as a covering, organising general, promptly produced his one poor kick of the game. The rain was in his head.

New Zealand did not automatically make them pay. They had already begun to exert pressure on the opposition throw at the lineout, but were not having it their own way at the scrum. They went backwards again and Jerome Garces awarded a penalty against them.

Still South Africa could not stay for long outside their own half. Ben Smith, the best of a very gifted set of aerial artistes on display, set off in pursuit of his up-and-under, reclaimed it and 14-man New Zealand could keep play downfield. Nehe Milner-Skudder added a few more yards with a stabbed kick behind the line of defence. It had been a chosen method of turning the tacklers in the first half, employed by Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Milner-Skudder. Now the wing prodded the ball again and South Africa faced the struggle for possession at the lineout once more.

Not so the All Blacks. Having earned the territory and with Kaino still off the field, they won a lineout and Carter dropped a goal, the supreme accumulator unerringly cool. Kaino returned with the margin - two points - the same as when he was sent to the bin for one of those "lazy-runner not-so-innocent-as-I-look" offside penalties in which the All Backs specialise.

The rain fell. Schalk Burger was given the ball deep in his 22, with the aim of setting up a bit more space for the kickers to make ground with their next clearance. The wing-forward half lost the ball and half had it ripped from his grasp by Carter. The All Blacks were poised for the kill. Beauden Barrett had come on for Milner-Skudder, damaged in a strange collision with Habana, who tripped and took out his opposite number off the ball, and with his very first touch, another of those stabbed kicks, had very nearly put Julian Savea in for a try, but the wing could not collect the ball from between his knees. Now, with his second intervention, Barrett was sliding over for the All Blacks' second try.

No team has ever been more ruthless in making sure that a territorial opportunity becomes points on the board. Even before it dawned on South Africa that they had to create opportunities of their own, they were down to 14, with Habana binned for slapping the ball away in the build-up to the All Blacks try. Having been measured and patient in their absorption of pressure in the first half and soothed by the rhythmic swing of Handre Pollard's boot, the Springboks were five points behind and missing their strike runner.

Kieran Read knocked on at a scrum and when New Zealand were penalised at the next, Pollard was back in the groove. The reassurance of the scrum and the swing of the outside-half's right boot - perhaps there was hope yet for South Africa. From the restart, Eben Etzebeth "sealed off" over the ball and Carter was in control again. A surge downfield - a rare escape now for South Africa - seemed to have its reward, a penalty, only for it to be reversed for the infringement of choice at this World Cup: the neck roll. Victor Matfield was the culprit.

There would be one more chance, another break-out from deep, everybody in pursuit of a thump downfield by Patrick Lambie. The replacement had reduced the deficit to two with his penalty and now he tried to make himself the orchestrator of victory. Carter was back to side-kick the ball into touch. And still the rain fell. Aaron Smith was dive-passing from the scrum now. The South Africa lineout was still malfunctioning and Damian de Allende lost the ball in midfield. No team finishes a game off more cruelly than the All Blacks. They were in the right place and in their element - near the line, wet and winning.

Observer

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