In another Springbok/All Black classic at Ellis Park, South Africa come agonisingly close but just miss the mark.

Posted: July 30, 2015 in Rugby Championship 2015
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A Springbok/All Black encounter at Ellis Park always showcases one of rugby’s greatest rivalries and this past Saturday was no exception. South Africa sadly came short against an All Black side which at times didn’t quite have its customary sparkle, but nevertheless when it matters New Zealand still are second to none in closing out big games. For South Africa however, there were plenty of positives and much to be excited about going into the World Cup, especially as it would appear they have the most exciting centerfield pairing in international rugby right now in the form of Damian De Allende and Jesse Kriel.

South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – South Africa 20/New Zealand 27
Johannesburg

We were promised a classic and that’s exactly what we got! What’s more promising for South African supporters is that there seemed to be a concerted effort to fix many of the problems we have seen in the last year, in particular hanging onto the ball instead of kicking away perfectly good possession. South Africa took the game to New Zealand for much of the match and were by far the dominant side till the last quarter. From there however, the edge seemed to be taken off the Springboks momentum with the bench making little if any impact while New Zealand as they always do when their backs are against the wall dug deep and found another gear. The rest was history sadly at South Africa’s expense. Nevertheless, instead of highlighting the negatives of the South African performance as so many seem to do these days, let’s look at the positives of which there were plenty.

South Africa started this match full of intent as a packed Ellis Park welcomed the home side onto the field. Although it took the Springboks the first five minutes to settle gifting a successful penalty kick to New Zealand’s Lima Sopoaga on his Test debut at flyhalf, they soon hit their stride and at the 10 minute mark, it was Bismarck du Plessis showing the same form as he did last week who got the Boks going. Du Plessis brought down New Zealand’s Kieran Read as he took a pass from Ben Smith and brilliantly stole the ball. From there the Boks spread the ball wide as it found its way to Jesse Kriel who put fullback Willie le Roux into space allowing him to weave through the New Zealand defences and get South Africa’s first try. It was a superb passage of play from South Africa and showed just what they can do when they hang onto the ball as well as Willie le Roux returning to some of his best form. It was great to see the seamless interplay between backs and forwards and if they can play like that come the World Cup, then there is no question they will be serious contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy.

For the next ten minutes South Africa dominated the All Blacks. Every player on the field was putting in a huge effort. Flanker Heinrich Brüssow on his first return to Test rugby in almost four years was having a barnstormer of a game and you couldn’t help wondering why we haven’t seen him in a Bok jersey sooner. De Allende and Kriel were proving that they were just as dangerous in defence as they were on attack, while fullback Willie Le Roux seemed to find the form that had been eluding him since last year.  Schalk Burger at number 8 and Captain was proving inspirational in a leadership role along with his seemingly endless energy and commitment.  Francois Louw was providing plenty of solid work and support to Heinrich Brüssow in the back row.  Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager were doing exceptional work in the loose and in the lineout.  The Beast and the Du Plessis brothers in the front row were providing more than a match for their All Black counterparts and Bismarck Du Plessis was a constant source of turnover ball just as he had been in Australia the week before.

Handre Pollard seemed to still be having a hit and miss game with the boot at times but no one can fault him on his willingness to take the ball into contact and on numerous occasions he courageously chose this option instead of suspect kicking to a powerhouse All Black back line who have proven time and again that they are masters of the counter attack.

New Zealand were to strike back just before half time as Lima Sopoaga, who was having a stellar day out on his debut appearance in the black jersey, made a sniping run up the inside channel beating several defenders to then find his Highlanders teammate Ben Smith on the right wing and the rest was history, with New Zealand going into the break with scores level at 10-10.

South Africa started the second half with just as much intensity as the first, but unfortunately injuries saw Jannie Du Plessis remain on the bench to give Vincent Koch his Test debut at prop for the Springboks.  Meanwhile Francois Louw left the field after only a few minutes.  However, Jesse Kriel was to show off his skills once more, after taking a brilliant offload under pressure from flyhalf Pollard to then power his way past the All Black defence and cross the line once more for South Africa.  South Africa were on fire and were playing the kind of game that we just haven’t seen from them in their last few outings.  New Zealand while intensely competitive were not as awe inspiring as we have come to expect from them.  While matching the Springboks they didn’t quite have the speed and imagination on attack that the Springboks were displaying.

However, just when you think New Zealand are running out of ideas they prove why they are the masters of the comeback.  Literally a minute after Kriel’s superb effort for South Africa, All Black hooker Dane Coles found himself in space and then put in a burst of speed and defender dodging worthy of some of the world’s best centres, to once more get New Zealand right back in the game.  Sopoaga found the mark with his conversion and the scores were level at 17-17.

The rest of the game proved to be a war of attrition with New Zealand quietly starting to get the edge.  With South Africa just in front by 20-17 the game entered its most dangerous period whenever the All Blacks are up against the wall – the last five minutes.  New Zealand took a quick lineout with a set move that completely caught the Springboks napping as Richie McCaw scooped the ball and burst through and over the Springbok line.  Sopoaga converted once more and then with a minute to go, made a successful penalty kick resulting from sustained All Black pressure in the Springbok 22.  Suddenly what had looked so promising for South Africa ended in yet another heartbreaking last minute defeat.  South Africa had played a superb game of rugby for 70 minutes but their consistent problem of losing their edge in that vital last ten minutes once more got the better of them.

The All Blacks continue to look like the team to beat but don’t necessarily look as all conquering as they have been up till now.  They are still masters of closing out games especially when the odds are against them, but certainly lacked some lustre in getting the job done in this match.  Still an outstanding debut for fly half Lima Sopoaga once more showed just how much depth New Zealand has available to them going into a World Cup.  South Africa however, although the losers in a fantastic match can take great heart from this performance.  Springbok Coach Heyneke Meyer has more than just the nucleus of a strong World Cup squad as evidenced by this game.  The forward pack is starting to gel really nicely and beginning to look like a world beater from 1-8.  While some questions still remain around what the ultimate Springbok halfback pairing may actually look like, there is plenty of promise.  The centrefield pairing of De Allende and Kriel is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and it was fantastic to see fullback Willie le Roux return to his world class form.  The only real remaining question for the Springboks is what happens on the wings, but once again there is some exciting prospects to work with – especially with Cornal Hendricks answering many of his critics by his defensive performance in this match and we all know the speed he has available to him.  There is no question that South Africa and New Zealand are the two best teams in the world right now, and England and Ireland still have plenty of work to do if they really want to stand alongside them as equals come September/October.

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