Bokke! Bokke! Bokke!
The magic muti of Nelson Mandela worked for the Springboks again on Saturday as John Smit’s men beat the All Blacks 40-26 in their Tri-Nations rugby test match played at Ellis Park.
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At South Africa’s 1995 World Cup “Field of Dreams” and once again inspired by Madiba the Springboks scored five tries to two to keep alive their hopes of winning the tournament and also halted a run of eight successive All Black victories in a super-charged performance that brought centre Marius Joubert a hat-trick of tries.
The 14-point victory, in a thrilling match in which the lead changed hands five times and the All Blacks led 10-0 after seven minutes, means the Springboks and the Wallabies will be playing each other to decide the 2004 Tri-Nations at the Absa Stadium in Durban next Saturday.
The result leaves the All Blacks, who have completed their fixtures, and the Wallabies tied on nine log points with the Springboks now on seven.
Fittingly, given their recent woes when playing the All Blacks, the Springboks became the first holders of the new Freedom Cup presented to mark 10 years of South Africa’s new democracy.
The early portents for John Smit and his men were not promising as they squandered a clear advantage in field position and ball possession to allow the All Blacks to jump into a 10-0 lead – fullback Mils Muliaina being a allowed to race away for a spectacular try from his own 10-metre line after a knock-on had given the New Zealanders the ball.
But in a match of kaleidoscopic action and vivid swings of fortune, the Boks showed that the burgeoning spirit that had made them competitive overseas could be transferred into success at home.
There ball retention was the best it has been for the last few tests and added to their swarming, energetic defence they kept the All Blacks under pressure and forced them into taking risky options and committing uncharacteristic errors.
The Boks had the look of men fighting for their honour and not even the additional drama of the referee having to be changed could sway their determination to get their first win over the All Blacks since 2000.
Welsh referee Nigel Williams pulled up with a hamstring injury and, having missed a clear knock-on by Sam Tuitupou, decided to call it a day after 14 minutes. This brought touch judge Donal Courteney into the spotlight, with South Africa’s Mark Lawrence taking over on the touchline, and it has to be said the Irishman acquitted himself well by fitting in seamlessly.
South Africa’s opening score in the 22nd minute would have given their coaching staff a thrill because it was the result of good tactical build-up work. No8 Joe van Niekerk, who more than justified coach Jake White’s confidence in him, had been picking up the ball at the back of scrum and charging into the All Black loose forwards but this time he let the ball go to Joubert who, taking advantage of the stalled cross cover, crashed through Tana Umaga’s attempted tackle and galloped over for the first of his three tries.
When, after 30 minutes, Andrew Mehrtens kicked his second penalty to put the All Blacks 13-7 in front it seemed incomprehensible that the Boks could be trailing after having had so much domination.
But fears that another game was slowly slipping from their grasp were stunningly blown away in a super-charged finish to the first half.
First Paulse started and finished a move, by tackling Muliaina to force the turnover, and then being on hand to take the ball from Percy Montgomery, after both the fullback and Bolla Conradie had done well to turn defence into attack, and then Joubert was in for his second.
With Montgomery struggling to find his goal-kicking range Paulse’s try pulled the Boks up to 12-13 and two minutes later they had the lead for the first time after Paulse ran strongly from the kick-off to set up a scrum close to the visitors’ line and create the opportunity for De Wet Barry to break inside Sam Tuitupou before feeding his centre-mate who went over at the posts.
The Springboks led 19-13 at the break and a penalty apiece from Mehrtens and Montgomery kept the gap at six points before the All Blacks grabbed back the lead with a try by Joe Rokocoko, converted by Mehrtens.
The score marked a worrying period for the Boks as they were under pressure in the scrum and the All Blacks, for the first time in the game, were starting to put together some phases but fortunately Montgomery came good when it was needed as he goaled a penalty to put South Africa in front again. (25-23).
Mehrtens, with a match tally of 16 points, overturned it again (25-26) when Schalk Burger was penalised for hands-in but this turned out to be the signal for the Boks, unlike when they lost in Christchurch, to compete harder for the ball and keep it away from the Black marauders.
Taking the game to their opponents helped the Boks to engineer some good scoring opportunities, with Jaco van der Westhuyzen and Paulse just failing to hold onto sharp passes from Barry and Joubert that could have resulted in tries, but it was apparent that the flow of the game was edging towards the home-side and they produced the stronger finish against a re-jigged All Black side struggling to find shape and rhythm.
Whether caused by the sting of altitude or the compelling hustling and bustling of the Springboks, it was the All Blacks who fell away in the last quarter of a match that ran to 98 minutes of elapsed time to concede their biggest Tri-Nations defeat against South Africa and also their biggest loss at Ellis Park.
Successive scrums in which the Boks, through replacement scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, worked the blindside had the All Blacks under the gun and Joubert’s pace and power created the breach for Jean de Villiers, following up closely, to grab the centre’s pop-up pass to dive over (30-26).
Montgomery, who goaled only 50% of his kicks or the score might have been higher, missed the conversion but soon afterwards was successful with a penalty that took the Boks out to a vital seven-point lead. (33-26).
In a thrilling climax and scenting victory an energized Springbok team put together a phase of 10 re-cycles, heaved a sigh of relief as Rokocoko just failed to hold onto an interception that spoilt a try but which could have resulted in a score at the other hand, but then managed to regain control of the ball.
A diagonal kick by Van der Westhuyzen to the corner caused Muliaina to throw a risky pass infield, which was knocked on by Doug Howlett, giving the Boks the platform to end off in style.
In a carbon copy of their first try Jacques Cronje, who had replaced Van Niekerk, broke strongly to the right, crashed through Mehrtens and into Umaga, and when the ball was dislodged from his grasp there was Joubert to blast over at the posts for his hat-trick and clinch the man-of-the-match award.
Montgomery added the conversion to complete a comprehensive win that confirmed a message that has been taking shape under Jake White but which can now be shouted from the rooftops: The Boks are back!
South Africa 40: Tries by Marius Joubert (22 min), Breyton Paulse (34 min), Joubert (38 min), Jean de Villiers (79 min), Joubert (92 min). Percy Montgomery kicked three conversions and three penalties.
New Zealand 26: Tries by Mils Muliaina (6 min) and Joe Rokocoko (62 min). Andrew Mehrtens kicked two conversions and four penalties.