RWC 2019 Pool Game 4: All Blacks show worth to down favoured Boks
The All Blacks have sent out a message to the rest of the competition with an impressive, if not entirely dominant, 23-13 defeat of South Africa in their opening Rugby World Cup match in Yokohama.
If this was a statement of intent from a New Zealand side under pressure, it was a pretty imposing one. Coming into the tournament with suggestions that they were a beatable team that had lost it’s aura, and with many tipsters backing the Springboks to triumph both here and in the final, they recovered from an underwhelming opening quarter to plunder 17pts in a thrilling six minute burst, and largely control proceedings from there on in to silence the naysayers.
They were far from perfect, but the fact they were able to go through the gears when necessary and appear to have more in reserve, was ominous for everybody else with designs on being the best in the world. The much-debated selection of Richie Mo’unga at 10 and Beauden Barrett at 15 also came through it’s biggest test with flying colours.
But the Springboks were also impressive in defeat, and better execution in the final third could have seen a different outcome. Don’t rule them out as a chance to be the first team to lose a pool match and go on to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy.
A penalty inside two minutes, George Bridge pinged on the floor by Stephen Kitshoff, got the Boks off to a fine start as Handre Pollard dissected the uprights from a metre inside his own half. And it was South Africa testing the All Blacks backline with a barrage of kicks and line speed pressure early on. But Beauden Barrett’s reading of the game and grass coverage was up to the task, while their work over the ball as a team was mopping up any loose ends if possession did fall back into South African hands.
Both sides were guilty of errors though, as the World Cup’s pattern of slow, nervy starts continued with an unusual amount of dropped ball considering the protagonists on display. A couple of damaging carries from Damian De Allende and Eben Etzebeth resulted in an offside penalty in the 17th minute, as South Africa continued to ask questions. But a rare miss from Pollard – the ball smacking back off a post – saw their relative dominance go unrewarded.
Sevu Reece and Barrett then combined superbly to clear their lines with a bevy of green jerseys bearing down on them. And the Boks were soon all the way back under their own posts, Richie Mo’unga chasing his own grubber through but brought down by Makazole Mapimpi, only for the winger to fail to release after the tackle, and Mo’unga to step up and level the scoreboard with a penalty.
To be just three-apiece as the game ticked into the second quarter despite enjoying 78% territory, was an anomaly that soon came back to bite South Africa. A crossfield kick just outside his own 22 from Mo’unga, that trod a fine line between brilliance and recklessness, was turned into the former when Reece took it and stepped Mapimpi to tear a path up the sideline.
A bullet pass infield to Aaaron Smith gave the supporting Ardie Savea the platform to carry inside the opposition 22, and when the ball was recycled back for the predatory Barrett, he punished a chink in South Africa’s defensive armour to race through and send George Bridge scampering over. Trademark All Black counter-attacking brilliance.
And they were at it again soon after, keeping the ball alive in their own half whilst playing a penalty advantage and carving the Springboks apart. An offload around the back in the tackle from Dane Coles to Anton Lienert-Brown opened the door, the centre cutting back inside to step through a fractured defensive line and away, and with Scott Barrett off his shoulder for a run to the posts.
That made it 17pts in six minutes from the reigning two-time champions, and having dominated without barely laying a glove on their opponent, South Africa were left wondering what on earth had just happened. A long-range penalty miss from Mo’unga spared them further punishment. But as they went to the sheds they had plenty to think about in terms of turning this one around.
It was Mo’unga’s defensive nous that was called upon five minutes after the restart, Cheslin Kolbe finally getting the space to stretch his legs and scorch a path up the touchline, only for the kiwi flyhalf to bring him down with the line in sight.
But South Africa had returned with renewed intent, and after several pick and drives maintained their assault on the New Zealand 22, Pieter-Steph Du Toit took advantage of some inexplicably absent pillar defence to scoop up and stride straight through the middle of a ruck and over.
Pollard’s conversion made it 17-10, but while momentum had visibly swung back their way in the contest, again they struggled to make it truly count. The All Blacks hung tough whilst under pressure, adding plenty of starch to their hits as they tried to preserve their advantage. But after knocking on the door for another 10 minutes with no reward, the Springboks decided to take what they could the old-fashioned way, Pollard in the pocket to drop a brilliant field goal and make it a 4pt ball game.
A scrum penalty then gave Mo’unga a shot at the posts, which he took with aplomb to earn his side’s first points in over half an hour. But that was to be the flyhalf’s last contribution, Ben Smith joining the fray at fullback and Beauden Barrett moving up to run the cutter for the closing stages. And it was the new no.10 who landed another blow with just eight minutes remaining, the Springboks offside from a Willie Le Roux kick, and Barrett opening up a 10pt lead at 23-13.
From there the All Blacks simply controlled proceedings, happy to play multiple phases and run down the clock without offering their opponent’s a glimpse. The game ended with South Africa on the front-foot only to knock-on, which was a microcosm of their match. Plenty of attacking intent but an inability to execute. And you just can’t get away with that profligacy against New Zealand.
First up spoils to the champions then, but what are the odds on these two sides meeting again at the same venue in a few weeks – this time for the trophy.
NEW ZEALAND 23 (George Bridge, Scott Barrett tries; Richie Mo’unga 2 cons, 2 pens, Beauden Barrett pen) defeated SOUTH AFRICA 13 (Pieter-Steph Du Toit try; Handre Pollard con, pen, drop goal) HT 17-3 at Yokohama Stadium