2018 Rugby Championships

New Zealand 34 vs South Africa 36

Date: Saturday, September 15

Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)

Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Nic Berry (Australia)

Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)

When the All Blacks and the Springboks took to the field at Westpac Stadium in Wellington there was a very large elephant joining them on the field. The “elephant in this room” was one we shall called “history” and I am not sure that every one of those Springboks was aware of that history. It would have surely added to the weight of the psychological burden they would have to carry, and attempt to shake off as they faced the All Blacks.

Whether they knew of the history or not before the game started, when the final whistle blew those Springboks had rewritten those history books.

You see, the All Blacks went out onto that field having won 56 of their previous 57 home Tests.

During that incredible run of results they had only been beaten at home once, and that was by a combined team consisting of the best that four countries could cobble together and send onto a rugby field. That team was the 2017 British and Irish Lions, who beat the All Blacks at the same venue last year.

New Zealand have only ever been beaten by six test nations, and they are the only international team to have a winning record against every nation they have played.

They have won 443 of their 572 test matches – a 77.45% winning record.

No single Test playing country had beaten the All Blacks at home in 57 Tests. The last time they bent the knee on home soil was on the 12th September 2009, when they went down to – you guessed it – the Springboks by 32 – 29 at the Waikato Stadium in Hamilton.

In is interesting too, to recognise that the All Blacks “worst” winning record is their 60% success record over the Springboks. Next is Australia on 69,33% and then the British & Irish Lions on 73,17%.

This was the 58th Test in that long-running winning sequence, and everyone – myself included – expected the All Blacks to bank another win.

Incredibly, they did not.

It took an heroic effort by the Springboks to end that run of consecutive victories.

This game will go down in the record books as one of the classics.

We may need to turn to the Classics to describe it. It was almost biblical, a David and Goliath clash of titanic proportions, but there are historical examples too, the great tank battle at Kursk in July and August of 1943 comes to mind. Perhaps the best equivalence can be found in the Greco-Persian Wars back in 480BC, when the Greeks, numbering a mere 7 000 blocked the pass at Thermopylae against the 150 000 Persians of King Xerxes.

The vastly outnumbered Greeks held off the Persians for seven days before their rear-guard of 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians was annihilated in one of history’s most famous last stands. The small Spartan/Thespian force was led by Leonidas, and they blocked the only road by which the massive Persian army could pass. Those Spartans and Thespians fought to the death.

In the ancient Grecian history, the Battle of Thermopylae was a defeat, despite the heroic defence offered by those men of Sparta.

History very nearly repeated itself on the rugby field of the Westpac Stadium in Wellington, as the All Black army threw everything they had at the thin green line of Springbok defenders.

A thin green line that was sdepleted by a cruel yellow card shown to Willie le Roux by referee Nigel Owens in the 67th minute when Le Roux went offside in desperate defence of the goal line.

Somehow, heroically, that thin green line held. And held, and held, despite the repeated assaults by wave after wave of All Black warriors.

The Greeks eventually lost at Thermopylae, the Springboks did not lose in Wellington.

This was a classic rugby Test, with both teams contributing some excellent rugby, while both made errors too. The Test was made truly great by a string of high-stakes errors in that epic final quarter.

This was a Test where the pressure simply ramped up, and up, and up, right from the start through to the final whistle some 3 minutes after the hooter had sounded to signal the end of regular time.

As the clock ticked inexorably on in that final quarter the pressure reached explosive levels. Every moment, every segment of play, every tick of the clock was a pressure-cooker situation. And every one of those moments was bigger than the last one.

The Springboks, running on the fumes of sheer resolve, defending a 14-point lead as the All Blacks did their level best to chase down the game.

The pressure was huge, and it was inevitable that cracks appeared on both sides.

Cracks like Willie le Roux going offside in the 67th minute and earning a cruel yellow card. Cracks such as the Springboks bleeding penalties as they flung themselves forward in desperate defence. Cracks like Francois Louw dropping the ball near the halfway with just 2 and a half minutes left on the clock, a crack like Handre Pollard’s exit kick gaining just 5 meters and giving the All Blacks the ball just 10m from the Springbok line.

Cracks like Beauden Barrett’s missed goal kicks. Cracks like TJ Perenara’s slightly skewed pass to Savea that was knocked on by Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Cracks like Ryan Crotty trying to crash through Cheslin Kolbe rather than pass the ball to Goodhue. A final, desperate crack when Damian McKenzie spilled the ball to end the All Blacks’ last chance.

The greatness of this match can be found in some of the statistics.

The epic proportions of the Springbok defence, 291 tackles, with just 34 missed, an almost unbelievable 91% completion rate in such a pressure-cooker environment. In a game where the ball was in play for 35 minutes, that tells of a tackle being made on average, very 7 seconds. The All Blacks had to defend too, although they only had to make 87 tackles, missing 9 for a success rate of 91% matching that of the visitors.

The real story is to be found in the number of dominant tackles the Springboks made, a massive 39 physically dominant tackles, while the All Blacks made just 4.

It was the steely resolve and ferocity of the Springbok defence that proved to be the single biggest difference between the two sides.

Their line-speed on defence was almost unbelievable at times, getting right into the All Black spaces and faces, denying them the room to move, and the time to think about alternatives.

In my preview to this game, I suggested that the game would be won or lost in the minds of the Springboks. They would need to move on from the jitters and nerves of the previous week’s game against Australia. They would need to shake off that away-game monkey that had taken up residence on their collective backs.

Once they had conquered their inner demons, I suggested that the Springboks would need to focus on achieving parity in the set-pieces.

Having achieved parity in the set-pieces, I then suggested that the Springboks must not fall into the trap of trying to play the All Blacks at their own free-form style of play. They would need to take a lesson from the British Lions efforts of 2017 and play a disciplined, focussed game that targeted those aspects of the game where the All Blacks are uncomfortable.

I suggested that the Springboks would need to focus on shutting down the All Black midfield, especially their distribution general, Ryan Crotty.

My final suggestion was the Springboks would need to somehow stop the flow of quick broken play ball secured by the All Black loose-forwards and played quickly by their world class halfbacks.

I am no rugby genius, I simply attempt to look at each game with a certain logic and attempt to identify the job of work a team needs to do.

Quite obviously far more accomplished rugby brains than I, the likes of Rassie Erasmus and his Springbok brains trust, had also done their homework, and the Springboks were intent on doing those things that had been identified as critical focus points for this Test.

They set out to achieve the forward parity that was critical to success. This they did, with a 100% record in the battle of the scrums, and a 100% record in the lineout battle too. They did not concede a single set-piece ball to the All Blacks.

The Springboks avoided falling into the trap of playing a free-flowing open game too. We know that they can play this way if they want to, but it is a high-risk game plan, and dangerous against the best counter-attackers in the world. The Springboks played a disciplined, focussed game that was designed to make as few mistakes as possible. They played a game focussed on exploiting those areas that the All Blacks tend to avoid. The direct forward assaults, the big men thundering into close range combat. And tackling!

And then the Springboks worked at depriving the All Black backline of the space and time they want and need in a Test match. As I mentioned earlier, the line-speed on defence was almost unbelievable at times, getting right into the All Black spaces and faces. Most importantly, they produced the rush defence without too many of the wider players drifting inwards and narrower.

The defensive resolve was epic.

Cheslin Kolbe standing his ground against Reiko Ioane and clattering into the big All Black to help drive him into touch. Frans Malherbe stopping Beauden Barrett like a brick wall. Warren Whiteley chasing down TJ Perenara and making 30 tackles in all. Faf de Klerk somehow getting there to tackle Reiko Ioane on the cover, just one of his 12 tackles. Pieter-Steph du Toit making a monstrous 29 tackles.  Franco Mostert pulling off 33 tackles. Siya Kolisi with 22, 15 by Steven Kitshoff, 13 by Frans Malherbe, 12 by Eben Etzebeth, 11 by Handré Pollard, 10 by Damian de Allende, including one brick-wall stop on Liam Squire.

In the final analysis this was a Test that did not revolve around the clinical execution of plans, plays, and ploys. It was a game built on the sheer character of both sides. Evidence of that character could be found in the respect the two teams showed for each other right through the game. There were no ugly incidents, there was no off-the-ball moment worthy of comment. There was none of the hand-bag swinging throat-grabbing pushing and shoving often found in hugely tense and competitive games. It was simply two teams going at each other with maximum effort right to the end.

And this was a Test where the All Blacks, for all their legendary focus and confidence, were just a little rattled by the ferocity and focus of the Springbok defence. This was a game where their usually clinical, knife-edge decisions were just a little wayward.

Why did they go for a try rather than a drop goal in the dying seconds of the game?

Why did they call that somewhat predictable attack off the 12 in those last minutes, for Crotty to clatter into Kolbe when all it required was for the ball to go wide to Jack Goodhue with momentum, in a one-on-one with the much lighter Cheslin Kolbe and just 5 meters out?

What was Jordie Barrett thinking when he threw the ball in, to nobody? What happened when Anton Lienert-Brown threw the pass that was intercepted by Cheslin Kolbe for his try?

Bluntly, the All Blacks had the ball, they had the territorial advantage too, but they simply could not create the chances that are their bread and butter, and then they made too many errors, both unforced and forced.

The Springbok pressure got to them!

As I said in my preview: This game would be won or lost in the minds of the players. And so it was, in the minds of both teams.

Individual Player Assessments:

New Zealand

  1. Jordie Barrett – 6

Some good some bad. Great early try, and was involved in Reiko Ioane’s first try.  A weird throw-in that gave Willie le Roux his try detracts from a steady game at the back.

  1. Ben Smith – 7

Probably the best of the All Black backline. Able to carry the ball into and through the tackle with special skill, stepping and swerving causing defenders to have to turn with him. Set up Aaron Smith’s try. Was shot down by the defence in the second half.

  1. Anton Lienert-Brown – 5

Had two of the worst moments in the All Black game. Threw the intercept that gave Kolbe his try, and missed Jordie Barrett’s throw-in, which gave le Roux his try. Nice hands to send Ioane in for his first try.

  1. Ryan Crotty – 5

Managed to get through a whole Test without concussion! Made numerous attempts at the Springbok line, but was stopped, time and again. Not given the space he thrives on to create chances for his outside backs. A steady game, but not a great game.

  1. Rieko Ioane – 7

Two superb tries and gave the Springbok defenders plenty to think about. Some superb footwork with the ball in hand. Perhaps a little lazy in going in to look for work, but the nature of this Test probably dictated that he stay wide.

  1. Beauden Barrett – 5

An average day for the man rated by many as the best rugby player in the world. His kicking boot misfired 4 out of 6 times. Great defence in the 56th minute, but was left for dead by  Aphiwe Dyantyi which cost a try. The Springbok pressure gave him no time on the ball at all.

  1. Aaron Smith – 6

It is not often that Aaron Smith gets rattled by swarming defenders, but there were moments on Saturday when he seemed a bit nonplussed by the constant attention of Faf de Klerk and Siya Kolisi. Started like a house on fire, but was then shut down and out. Good support run for his try.

  1. Kieran Read – 5

Not quite as prominent with the ball in hand as he usually is, forced to play in close rather than the tramline role he is so good at. Worked hard in the rucks and mauls. Carried the ball 22 times, but made very few meters. His captaincy must be questioned when he did not step up and command a drop attempt at the end of the game.

  1. Sam Cane – 6

Strangely anonymous for the All Blacks’ primary fetcher. Spilt a ball early in the Test. Spent most of the game down at the bottom of the pile-up.

  1. Liam Squire – 7

Some great support running, good work in the lineouts. Provided physicality and led his team with seven tackles, and no misses. Replaced with a shoulder injury in 57th minute. Best of the All Black loosies.

  1. Scott Barrett – 6

Not the kind of open game that he is suited too. Just a little light for the really heavy physicality of this kind of Test. Did his bit on defence, carried the ball up but was unable to thrust through the tackle.

  1. Sam Whitelock – 6

Never gave an inch in an enormously physical tussle, but was not allowed to be at his influential best. Did his job, was good in the lineout and stayed the distance,

  1. Owen Franks – 5

Solid 46-odd minutes in a massive tussle with Steven Kitshoff, but seemed to be tiring just before he was replaced. Got tied into the hard stuff by the Springbok effort.

  1. Codie Taylor – 8

Best of the All Black forwards, he seemed tireless across the entire field. Bashing the ball up, making tackles, cleaning out rucks, scrumming, throwing in lineouts, mauling.  Scored a good try off the lineout drive in the second half.

  1. Karl Tu’inukuafe – 7

A great run with the ball could have led to more if he had the ball in two hands and could just get the pass away. Stood up to the Malherbe challenge in the scrums. Began to tire after the immense effort of the first 50 minutes or so. Replaced in the 57th.

Relacements:

  1. Liam Coltman (On in the 75th min for Taylor)

Not enough time to be rated.

  1. Tim Perry 5:(On in 58th min for Tu’inukuafe).

A trifle anonymous, despite bringing fresh legs to the game. Struggled a bit in the scrums.

  1. Ofa Tu;ungafasi 4:(On in 47th min for Owen Franks)

Some strong carries, held his own in the scrums, just. Huge knock-on late in the game.

  1. Patrick Tuipulotu 5:(On in 57th min for Liam Squire)

Dropped ball with his team  on attack. Some strong carries, a missed tackle.

  1. Ardie Savea 7:(On in 69th min for Sam Cane)

Great impact off the bench, scoring a great try. Threw himself into the fray with plenty of purpose.

  1. TJ Perenara 5:(On in 49th min for Aaron Smith)

A moment of selfishness might be remembered. Went for the line when he had a man outside him, and was stopped. Plenty of positives too, but looked rattled at the end.

  1. Jack Goodhue 7:(On 57th min for Lienert-Brown)

His power with the ball in hand is impressive, and he had a moment where a pass would have given him the chance to win the game for his team, but the ball did not reach him. Made one big run late in the Test.

  1. Damian McKenzie 6:(On in 57th min for Jordie Barrett)

Brought the excitement to the game that we all know he will. Had a go on a number of occasions, but was well watched and shut down by the Springboks. One very nice break, and a couple of superb passes, but that last-move-lost-ball………..

South Africa

  1. Willie le Roux – 8

Played with a focus and intent not seen in the last two outings. Made a huge impact as the calm general at the back, with some massive tackles, fronting up under the high ball too. One massive hit on Reiko Ioane. A constant menace with the ball in hand, with a superb grubber and chase that finally resulted in his 25th minute try. Somewhat harsh yellow card in 68th was probably as a result of his commitment on defence.

  1. Jesse Kriel – 7

Maintained his wide defensive channel superbly, despite being out of position on the wing. Great tackle to stop Kieran Read. Another massive tackle on Codie Taylor. Yet another on Scott Barrett. Reverted to inside centre in second half and continued to work as hard as possible.

Lukhanyo Am: 5

Had a bit of a defensive issue when the ball went wide. As has happened before, he drifted into the narrow channel on defence and then had to turn. One superb turnover. Was receiving on-field treatment when All Blacks scored. Not sure why Nigel Owens had not stopped the clock.

  1. Damian de Allende – 7

Abrasive defence, and lead the line speed that shut down Ryan Crotty in the mid-field. Some superb tackles. Shoulder injury caused his replacement in the 48th minute.

  1. Aphiwe Dyantyi: 7

Once again he was exposed on defence, but he seems to be learning with every game. Two tries through his channel, and was bamboozled by Ben Smith’s footwork. Creative with the ball in hand, and scored two tries. Broke the All Black line twice.

  1. Handré Pollard – 7

A true display of leadership under fire. Yes, he overcooked his first kick-off, adrenaline perhaps? After that it was an enormously steady and focussed game. Massive defence, especially when he stone-walled the 135kgs of Karl Tu’inukuafe. Mostly very good tactical and clearance kicking, although one or two might have gone further. Great goal kicking. Ensured that Elton Jantjies remained focussed and in the game when he came on.

  1. Faf de Klerk: 7

What you see is what you get. He buzzed around the field like an angry bee, harassing and plaguing anyone who touched the ball, or looked like they might touch the ball. Some massive tackles, some superbly quick passes. Box kicking was not great, but his chasers managed to prevent the All Blacks from benefiting. Once chased and caught one of his own box kicks. A never-say-die attitude that infected everyone around him.

  1. Warren Whiteley – 8

I have often said that Warren Whiteley is too lightweight for the hurly-burly of Test rugby. Not sure what kind of pills he took in the week, but this was his best game in a Springbok jersey, ever. He was simply everywhere. Watching my recording I do not believe that he was off the TV screen for more than a second or two at any one time. Huge energy, and some good carries too, but it was his tackling that stands out for all to admire. The back tackle on TJ Perenara was a special moment.

  1. Pieter-Steph du Toit: 10

Wow, what an enormous effort by my Man of the Match.

Titanic, focussed, physical, committed, uncompromising, unrelenting work-rate. Massive tackles, huge strength in the hard stuff too. A complete performance by a complete rugby player.

  1. Siya Kolisi – 7

Came into his own with an enormous defensive effort as he led from the front. Made powerful meters with the ball in hand too. Calm, mostly, as a captain.

5 Franco Mostert: 8 

After a somewhat tired, almost distracted couple of Tests against the Argies and the Aussies, he found his mojo and mongrel in this one! Put in a massive effort down in the dirty stuff. Second only to Du Toit for tackle count. A sterling effort!

  1. Eben Etzebeth – 7

Thundered into the hard stuff and provided the muscle and focus needed to inspire the troops round him. Tackled well. Drove into the rucks and mauls with intent. Safe in lineouts. Not fully Test match-fit yet, but right up there!

3 Frans Malherbe: 7

Some clattering tackles, one that flattened Beauden Barrett, strong scrummaging, effective lineout support, and great cleanouts. One very good carry in the first half, another in the second half.

  1. Malcolm Marx – 8

Back to his best as he got into the All Black faces, and minds. Good try off the maul, and had a hand in the build-up to Dyantyi’s try. Carried the ball well. Accurate lineout work.

  1. Steven Kitshoff: 9

Powerful in the scrums, huge in the carry, and massive on defence. His driving power in the mauls was impressive, as well as his power when carrying the ball. One beautiful pass.

Replacements:

16 Bongi Mbonambi 6 (on for Marx, 68th minutes)
Simply carries on where Marx leaves off. Powerful in the scrum, good in lineouts. Solid in the tackle and over the ball.

17 Tendai Mtawarira 6 (on for Kitshoff, 65th minute)
Not as strong as Kitshoff, but well up to the challenge of the day. Scrummed well. Tackled well. Not called on to do anything else.

18 Wilco Louw 7 (on for Malherbe, 65th minute)
Powerful in the scrum. Some good tackles, some grinding in the heavy stuff. A Solid 15 minutes.

19 Rudolph Snyman 6 (on for Etzebeth, 50th minute)
Much better than a week ago. Focussed, and solid on defence, a good carry, penalised once.

20 Francois Louw 6 (on for Kolisi, 65th minute)
Hugely influential in the dark and dirty chambers of horror that are the breakdowns. Made some massive tackles. Knocked a ball he would usually have taken in his sleep.

21 Ross Cronje
Not used

22 Elton Jantjies 6 (on for De Allende, 47th minute)
Seemed his usual nervous self at first, but was well protected and nurtured by Pollard, which allowed him to settle into his game for a change. Made some good carries. Defence is still a big concern.

23 Cheslin Kolbe 7 (on for Am, 40th minute)
Quick to capitalise on a wayward pass by Lienert-Brown, he settled into the game and produced some brave defence, although he gave Ioane too much room once. Made another try-saving tackle on the same Ioane.

The scorers:

For New Zealand:
Tries: J Barrett, A Smith, Ioane 2, Taylor, Savea
Cons: B Barrett 2

For South Africa:
Tries: Dyantyi 2, Le Roux, Marx, Kolbe
Cons: Pollard 4
Pen: Pollard
Yellow Card: Le Roux

Teams:

New Zealand (revised): 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Jack Goodhue, 23 Damian McKenzie

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jesse Kriel, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Beast Mtawarira, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Cheslin Kolbe