In the words of the New Zealand commentator, the Springboks were given ‘a good old-fashioned bath’ by the All Blacks, to the tune of 40 points to 7 in Wellington last night. In their first two Tri Nations matches this under-strength Springbok team have conceded 79 points to 27, including 11 tries to 3. Even allowing for the absence of many first-choice players and conceding that perhaps only five or six of this squad will be in their first-choice 22, this must count as a disastrous start for their defence of the World Cup.
By half-time, I was writing ‘lethargic versus dynamic’ in my notes, and, although the Springboks did have a few moments during the game – captain John Smit’s 28th minute try was one of them – that pretty much sums up the match.
During the build-up for the match throughout the week, the common thread of the New Zealand media discussion was we’ve got to do at least as well as the Wallabies last weekend. I’m inclined to think that they did this – although each of the victorious teams did it somewhat differently. The Wallabies relied on individual brilliance to initiate points scoring raids, whereas teamwork was pretty much at the heart of all that New Zealand achieved. Having said that, I’m not underestimating the individual brilliance of some of Dan Carter’s work – in fact, I think that Carter had his best game of the season, in a welcome return (for New Zealand fans) to his brilliant best.
The fundamentals of All Black play remain first class! Lines of attack, catch-and-pass skills, soft hands, excellent support (which also gives numbers at the tackle), realignment (in both attack and defence), leg-drive and impact in the collisions — their performance had it all. When New Zealand had the ball – especially on turnover ball – it looked as if someone had pressed the fast-forward button, such was the urgency of their attack. Two of the fastest players on the pitch were both Springboks – Mvovo and Basson – but you would never have known it. Only young Patrick Lambie seemed capable of injecting consistent pace into their attack and their defence frequently looked ponderous, indeed as it did against the Wallabies the previous weekend. By the 55th minute, the Springboks had missed 18 tackles – and it went downhill from there!
On counter-attack from the much-vaunted South African kicking game, the New Zealand play started with never less than four and frequently more! That their defence was generally also rock-solid speaks volumes for their commitment. I always say that counter-attack is ‘purely a state of mind’. There was certainly no problem with the state of mind of this group! At the break, Wayne Smith had said that he was looking for ‘more dynamic play in reigniting our second strikes’, and two tries came from this in the next 25 minutes. It’s not hard to imagine that the rewards for such hard work and quality execution will increase further as team selection settles down in the week and months ahead.
The All Black scrum was dominant, but this was not a quality Springbok front row. The Wallabies were equally dominant. Wyatt Crockett seemed to stay within the laws of the game – he was penalised in the last scrum of the first half – but perhaps he was not under pressure. This is his first season back in the All Black jersey after Stu Dickinson found him so often at fault a couple of years back in Milan. The All Black selectors seemed to agree with Stu and not with Paddy’s petulant reaction!
I’m certain that these same selectors would love to have Crockett in the team. His work around the park is outstanding, but penalties can lose you important matches. This scrum dominance also allowed them to use their favourite ‘8-9’ – McCaw to Cowan – launch-pad for several successful starter plays. They often used Nonu off Cowan – a definite threat to the defence – or Carter on the second-line plays. I’m not a huge fan of second-line plays, because lazy attacks often overrun the decoy role. New Zealand execute them beautifully!
Their lineout was certainly competent, without being dominant, and they were able to mount several telling driving mauls – no mean feat against any South African team. Ali Williams continues to regain ground lost with a two-year injury lay-off. I think that he is now playing better than ever.
Special reference must be made of the accuracy of execution of the All Black play – loose or tight, wide or close, open or blind side. In the last quarter, they must have had four or five different combinations – with Smith, Nonu, Williams and Carter all shuffling out in the centres, then Slade and Weepu filling the halves, and Messam at No. 8. It made no difference at all to their fluency or accuracy. In the 70th minute, with a variation on one of their favourite themes, they executed beautifully for Muliaina’s soft hands to put Guildford away, then back inside for the supporting Slade to score unopposed. Well done!
This was a genuine, top class performance and all starting players, plus the four of the bench who got reasonable game time, making significant contributions. Carter was great, but my man-of-the-match was Andrew Hore. I read that Graham Henry intends to bring in the ‘big guns’ next week, including Keven Mealamu. He’ll have to be very good!
I don’t want to disappoint my Kiwi readers, who consider it sacrilege to criticise any part of any All Black performance, so here goes! I don’t understand why so many All Black forwards are allowed to drive over the ball or the ball-carrier at the tackle and go to ground, sealing off any opportunity for their opponents to get at the ball or to counter-ruck. It could almost be described as ‘crawling’ over the ball/carrier, although it’s much more dynamic than that. I also don’t understand how they are allowed to be on the wrong side of the tackle – I mean 180 degrees on the wrong side – and interfere with opponents who are attempting to defend the play. Among others, there were two beauties: McCaw around the 14th minute and McCaw and Crockett in the 48th minute.