Boks bullied into defeat
The All Blacks showed that form and reputation count for nothing as they demolished a poor Springbok side 32-12 in their opening fixture of this year’s Vodacom
Tri-Nations tournament in Auckland.
The Boks were a shadow of the team that won the Tri-Nations last year and despite arriving in Auckland with so much promise and bravado, were confronted by an All Black team hungrier, and much more passionate in the collisions than they had previously seen.
The defeat -- which came via four unanswered tries -- will leave an indelible mark on the Bok conscience and will remind them that while they have been the world’s form team up to now, next year’s World Cup will be a much more difficult prospect as New Zealand will be a powerful force to deal with.
However, having said that, the World Champs were rocked early on with a dubious yellow card by referee Allan Lewis, who decided at the first penalty in the red zone that Bakkies Botha had committed a professional foul and should be sin-binned for his offence.
It was a decision that changed the complexion of the game. While a penalty may have been warranted, the reality of a yellow card which not only left the Boks with 14 men on the park, but also cost them 10 points and a heap of momentum, virtually handed the game to the All Blacks.
Lewis may have been influenced by television replays of Botha man-handling Jimmy Cowan to the ground earlier, before it looked like he planted a headbutt on the back of the All Black scrumhalf’s cranium.
With New Zealand television taking delight in showing the replays from every angle, Botha is sure to be kept back in Auckland for a disciplinary for the incident and can rightly fear the worst given his disciplinary record.
However, with these games normally so tightly poised, the yellow card was all that the All Blacks needed to grab the game by the scruff of its neck and put the Boks on the back foot. A man down, they scrambled on defence and were lucky not to concede more points.
To be honest, the yellow card aside, the Boks were far from the physical force they needed to be in this game.
Francois Louw was anonymous at the breakdown, while the midfield combination of Wynand Olivier and Jaque Fourie still needs a lot of work.
The lineout and scrum came under a lot of pressure, with the All Blacks winning both contests where the visitors were supposed to be stronger.
Ricky Januarie gave his normal nuggety performance, but we were once again reminded how much the Boks missed Fourie du Preez and his ability to marshall a game from behind the setpiece.
And while Zane Kirchner was solid at the back, Victor Matfield had an excellent defensive game and Morné Steyn was solid, the best player on the park for the Springboks was undoubtedly Gurthrö Steenkamp, who played his heart out.
However, the problem was that too many times it was all individual. There was a lack of fire, a lack of passion on both attack and defence and the All Blacks used it to their advantage.
While the tactical kicking was average, the defensive line that formed was nowhere near as accurate as it needed to be, and was badly exposed by the home side as Mils Muliana scythed his way through to spread the ball wide for Conrad Smith to score the opening try.
The Boks held firm under pressure while Botha was off the field, but even his return couldn’t stop another penalty and Dan Carter putting them 13-3 in the lead.
However it was a try to Ma’a Nonu -- his first against the Springboks -- just before halft ime that ended the game as a contest. Nonu slipped through the Boks defence and rumbled up to the line, then took the ball off Kieran Reid close out and dove through a half-hearted attempt by Jean de Villiers and Steyn to stop him to give the home side a 20-3 lead at the break.
Any side would struggle to come back from that, but the Boks emerged looking fresher and focused, and perhaps were too conservative as Steyn clawed back some points with two penalties.
Yet the way the All Blacks managed to make it over the advantage line and protect their ball was a stark contrast to the Boks, who kicked a lot of possession away, without reward. One such foray stopped the Bok momentum in its tracks, as the All Blacks took the ball through 14 sets of hands before a perfectly times pass to Kieran Reid saw the flanker burst through and take Ricky Januarie with him over the line.
The Boks still tried to stay in the contest, but confounded most with a decision to take a penalty at 27-9 down with 20 minutes to go, where they should have pumped it into the corner and go for the line.
When Tony Woodcock dived over a few minutes later from close range, it gave the All Blacks their fourth try, and the Boks were left wondering what had hit them.
The Boks will now move to Wellington, possibly without Botha and with a heavy load of unanswered questions on their backs.