Heroic Boks fall just short
Gavin Rich
September 13, 2014

The All Blacks extended their record home winning run to 36 matches but it wasn’t before having to dig deeper than they have in ages as a desperate defensive effort in the last five minutes secured a 14-10 Castle Lager Rugby Championship triumph over the Springboks in Wellington on Saturday.

The All Black defence was desperate in the last five minutes of an epic test match that for once was well refereed and wasn't impacted by yellow cards. New Zealanders would have had their hearts in their mouths as the Boks pressed for the try that would have secured their first win over the Kiwis since 2011 and their first on New Zealand soil since 2009.

But it was the Bok defensive effort for the bulk of the 80 minutes that was truly heroic on a night where for most of the way it was the hosts who dominated both territory and possession.

The difference between winning and losing at the highest level is taking your opportunities. The Boks did that excellently in the first half, with Handre Pollard setting up a rare attacking chance for his team with a long kick to the corner, and then the young flyhalf featured again twice as the South Africans attacked off the lineout.

His distribution skills are one of the aspects that make Pollard special and so much more of an attacking threat when he is present, and it was his inside ball that sent wing Cornal Hendricks in for the try that saw the Boks go into a 7-3 lead after 17 minutes. Aaron Cruden had kicked an early penalty for the All Blacks and he kicked another, but the Boks were able to retain a one point advantage (7-6) until halftime, with their strong performance in first phase helping negate some of the massive pressure that the All Blacks were piling onto them.

The halftime statistics showed that the All Blacks had enjoyed nearly 70% of the territory, and although they didn’t score a try in that time, they spent 11 minutes inside the Bok 22 before the break. The Boks had to make 77 tackles against 35 by the Kiwis.

However, crucially, the Bok scrum stood solid, and even enjoyed the ascendancy at times, and the Bok lineout, fortified over the past few weeks by the return of Victor Matfield – and how outstanding he was in every aspect of his game – exerted pressure that netted some crucial steals against the throw.

When the Bok first phase works it inspires confidence through the rest of the team, and all the players on the field responded. Duane Vermeulen was a colossal presence at the back of the scrum and at the breakdowns, and before he went off Francois Louw worked well with Marcell Coetzee in slowing down the All Black ball.

Sadly a clash of legs saw Ruan Pienaar leave the field shortly before halftime with what looks like a potentially serious knee injury. But before that the former Sharks player produced one of his finest performances in the green and gold jersey.

Louw went off in the second half after receiving attention for a while on the side of the field, and it was while the Boks were down to 14 men as he was being attended to that Kieran Read rose above Jean de Villiers to claim the catch off a Cruden cross kick towards the Bok corner flag. Read is an outstanding player and his offload found the equally outstanding All Black skipper, Richie McCaw, who scored in the corner.

That came in the 47th minute and reclaimed the All Blacks the lead, one they were not to relinquish, although a well taken drop-goal from Pollard did cut the lead to just one point at one stage. Pollard could in fact have claimed the lead for his team shortly after that as he was presented with a penalty opportunity from the halfway line, but the ball just slipped to the right (it did have the distance).

Pollard only had two kicks at posts, which underlines the territorial dominance of the All Blacks, but he did more than enough in other aspects to vindicate coach Heyneke Meyer’s decision to select him. His line kicking was outstanding, so was his decision-making, and he has a presence and calmness about him that belies his young years.

Jan Serfontein, playing mostly at inside centre in this game, was also strong outside him, with De Villiers looking like he belongs at No 13, so even though the Boks lost in such agonising fashion, Meyer can feel that it wasn’t in vain for surely there was a lot that he learned from the game.

One thing that Meyer might find himself criticised for was his decision to rotate hookers near the hour mark, for the Boks lost their lineout ascendancy when Bismarck du Plessis first came onto the field, losing the first three throws after Adriaan Strauss had turned in a perfect performance. The scrumming platform also appeared to dissipate until it was rejuvenated in the final 10 minutes and almost won the game for the Boks when an All Black defensive scrum was turned over with three minutes remaining.

But Du Plessis was also responsible for some important good work at the breakdowns in that final 20 minutes, and given what a strong and imposing presence he is, it would be churlish to slam Meyer for sticking to a plan that might have worked better than people might think it did if you consider how strong the Boks were at the finish. Would they have finished so strongly had Meyer stuck to the starting team until the last minutes?

Close though it was, and with just a bit of luck the Boks would have won as they piled on the pressure with a succession of attacking lineouts and scrums in the last five minutes, the All Blacks did on balance deserve to win. There are some areas where they remain well in front of the Boks, and their play at the restarts is starting to look like one of those.

While the Boks did score a good try, their handling was poor at times, and in a game where opportunities were so limited, that was crucial in determining the final result. There were also too many occasions when passes were misdirected and saw possession transferred to the All Blacks, and in one instance, when the Boks had turned over All Black possession, sloppiness almost led to a try for Aaron Smith.

For Bok skipper De Villiers his 100th game would have been a bitter sweet experience – bitter because his team lost but sweet because, despite the above, there was a lot to be positive about for the Boks after a performance of great intensity and passion.

Scorers -
New Zealand - Try: Richie McCaw. Penalties: Aaron Cruden (2), Beauden Barrett.
South Africa - Try: Cornal Hendricks. Conversion: Handre Pollard. Drop goal: Pollard.

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