Boks outpaced by All Blacks
The South African hegemony over New Zealand that lasted the best part of 15 months came to a shuddering end on Saturday as the All Blacks outplayed the Springboks 31-17 in their Vodacom Tri-Nations fixture in Wellington.
Since the big Vodacom Bulls' big win over the Chiefs in the 2009 Vodacom Super 14 final, just about everything has gone South Africa’s way in the long rivalry between the two southern hemisphere countries. Last week the Kiwis landed a big dent in the South African confidence when they won so easily in Auckland, but the blow was softened by the excuse of jetlag and the yellow card handed to Bakkies Botha.
There was another yellow card on Saturday, ironically to Botha’s direct replacement, Danie Rossouw. The Bulls lock was carded at a crucial stage of the match for kicking out at a player on the ground. The third minute is when all the big men are supposed to be sweating it out in an attempt to get physical dominance, and physical dominance was always going to be key to any chance of Bok redemption.
Rossouw’s banishment to the sidelines ended any hope of their being any physical ascendancy for the Boks, and in the time he was off, the All Blacks scored two tries to take a 10-0 lead. After that it was all about catch-up for the Boks, and although they did score a try just before the break to bring them back into it briefly, there was always going to be one winner.
South Africans will probably complain about the refereeing of Alain Rolland, and to be blunt, he was inconsistent. He was right to card Rossouw for his kick, for the laws say that is the sanction that the action warrants, and it was clearly picked up by the television cameras.
But then a shoulder charge or tackle without the use of arms should also warrant a yellow card, and there was none forthcoming for the blatant Rene Ranger infringement that saw the All Blacks penalised towards the end of the first half. There were some other dubious calls from Rolland which prevented the Boks from gaining momentum.
Yet while there were questions about the refereeing, to use them as an excuse would be to miss the point. And the point is that what became abundantly clear in this match was that the Springbok brains-trust has been left behind by the law interpretation changes that have made rugby a much quicker game than it was when the South Africans dominated the Vodacom Tri-Nations 12 months ago.
The unpalatable truth for the Boks is that this was not a game that they lost because they didn’t front up. On the contrary, the set-pieces this time were solid, and though you did get the impression the All Blacks still won the collisions, there wasn't much in it. with Francois Louw playing much better in this test than he did the previous week.
The truth of why the Boks lost this game may be more damning for their long term prospects: In a nutshell, they were just significantly slower about the field than an All Black team that has adapted to the new game far better than the South Africans.
The Boks base a great deal around their physicality, but it doesn’t make any point if you hit a ruck hard when the ball has already been moved on from the contact point, which was so often the case in this match. Unfortunately for South African rugby the reality that faces the Boks is that the question everyone hoped would go away has to be asked again -- are all the older players in this Bok team equipped to play the new game?
On the evidence of this match they may not be, but there is a chance for them to make a point next Saturday in Brisbane. For South African rugby’s sake that game will hopefully see Ruan Pienaar start at scrumhalf, for in Wellington there was a significant improvement in the pace at which the Boks played the game when he came on.
Jean de Villiers looked injured when he limped off at half time, but hopefully the experiment of playing him on the wing will also be ended, for he looks completely ineffectual in that position, with his best moment of the game being when joined the line to help set up Rossouw’s first half try. It was a good touch from De Villiers, one that made him look like what he is -- an inside centre.
It wasn’t really a surprise that the All Blacks should score their first try out on the left, for from the outset it was clear they were running at Jaque Fourie’s outside shoulder and trying to exploit the Bok weakness on the right flank. Ma’a Nonu was the man to touch down and the All Blacks, far from having to withstand an early Boklash, were ahead by five points after six minutes.
They had started poorly by misreading the All Black kick-off, and kick-offs were something they struggled at through the entire game. But instead of being 5-0 down they would have been 3-0 ahead at that stage were it not for the carding of Rossouw, as the Boks had been awarded an easily kickable penalty when the lock produced his moment of madness.
So it was a double whammy for the Boks, and they just never recovered. The second All Black try was the product of a bit of luck plus some poor defence of the counter as a Piri Weepu break-out from his own half was rounded off by a gleeful Mils Mulialina.
The Boks can be thankful that this was a day when Dan Carter did not have his kicking boots on, and the All Black flyhalf struggled to such an extent to come to terms with the strong wind he was kicking into that he left 10 points on the table in the first half. It was the main reason the Boks were able to go to the break just 13-7 down.
The Boks did appear to get a lifeline when that Rossouw try came against the run of play, and they started the second half impressively, but the All Blacks quickly regained the initiative as Rene Ranger went in at the left corner for his first international try against the Boks.
A Weepu penalty on the 50 minute mark made it 21-10, and when replacement back Isreal Dagg ghosted through a woeful defence 10 minutes later to make it 28-10, any chance of a Bok fightback had been well and truly snuffed out.
The Boks enjoyed their best passage of play in two matches in the last quarter, and some of the substitutions, the arrival of Pienaar and Andries Bekker on the field in particular, playing no small part in it. But when Schalk Burger scored to cut the deficit to 14 points, it was a consolation effort only that came far too late to make a difference.
The All Blacks were deserved winners and their coaching staff deserve full credit for righting the mistakes they made which contributed to the Bok dominance in this competition last year. With two bonus point try wins in as many starts, the All Blacks look well on course for another Vodacom Tri-Nations title.
New Zealand - Tries: Ma'a Nonu, Mils Muliaina, Rene Ranger, Israel Dagg. Conversion: Dan Carter. Penalties: Carter (2), Piri Weepu.
South Africa - Tries: Danie Rossouw, Schalk Burger. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2). Penalty: Steyn.