Someone needed to remind the South African Springboks that while the FIFA World Cup was finishing up in South Africa – on Saturday night at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand, they were expected to play rugby. And as any rugger can explain, you usually can’t win a match by kicking goals against scoring tries. But the Springboks did exactly that as they were steamrolled by the New Zealand All Blacks, 32-12 in the opening game of the Investec Tri Nations Tournament.
After losing all three games to the Springboks in last year’s Tri Nations tournament, the All Blacks were keen to defend Eden Park, where the All Blacks last lost in 1994 to France, from the interlopers in green. And the All Blacks did not disappoint the 25,000 fans pack into the stadium. Whether it was Ma’a Nonu or Richie McCaw or Joe Rokocoko, whose appointment to the All Black side was questioned as recently as last week, the All Blacks repeatedly used the power and flair that New Zealand rugby has become known for to power over and around the Springboks as the men in black racked up four tries.
Early in the match, there were glimpses of the 2009 Tri Nations as South Africa lit up the scoreboard first. Off of a scrum deep in All Black territory, New Zealand flanker and captain Richie McCaw broke away from the scrum and was caught offsides by a nice piece of Springbok trickery. Located 22-meters away from the goal line, and in front of the uprights, South Africa opted for the sure points as fly-half Morne Steyn split the uprights to take a 3-0 lead.
Unfortunately for South Africa fans everywhere, this was the only time the Springboks would lead in the match.
The intensely physical gameplay that the South Africans are known for, some might call it schoolboy cheap shots, came back to bite the Springboks quickly after taking the lead. While rugby is an aggressive game, unfortunately for the Springboks it’s not a professional wrestling match.
Early on in the game, Springbok lock Bakkies Botha was caught on video headbutting All Black Jimmy Cowan at the end of a tackle. This video was shown on the stadium monitor multiple times shortly thereafter, which was pointed out to referee Alan Lewis by the All Blacks. Shortly after that, the All Blacks were driving to the Springbok goal line, Botha was called for putting his hands in an All Black ruck and keeping the All Blacks from getting the ball. As a result, Botha was the recipient of a 10-minute sit down in the “Time Out” corner known as the Sin Bin, but the headbutting might have been on Lewis’ mind as Botha was also shown a yellow card.
The All Blacks took advantage of this 10-minute penalty to quickly tie up the score 3-3 on a Dan Carter penalty kick off of the Botha infraction. Then five minutes later, with Botha still watching from the “Time Out Chair,” New Zealand fullback Mils Muliaina ripped through the Springbok defense and hit a rampaging McCaw with a pass as the All Blacks closed in on the South Africa goal line. McCaw then passed the ball to center Conrad Smith who just beat Springbok Victor Matfield to dive across the near goalline for the first try of the game. Carter’s conversion kick extended the All Black lead to 10-3.
As the half went on, the All Blacks play showed more confidence as they pounded at the South Africa defense time and again. The Springboks were able to withstand the assault, tightening and hardening with each meter gained by the All Blacks. Despite having promising numerical totals in territory and time of possession, the Springboks were unable to take advantage and were repelled repeatedly.
Near the end of the first half the All Blacks were once again driving. New Zealand center Ma’a Nonu closed on the goal line, striking a grubber kick that bounced off of a defending Springbok and back into his own hands. Taking down three defenders, Nonu dished the ball to Rokocoko,who was tackled just outside the goal line. The ball found its way out of the pileup of players at the line and back into Nonu’s hands. Nonu was rewarded with his first test match try against South Africa as the center powered his way over the goal line. With the conversion the extended the New Zealand lead 20-3 going into halftime.
South Africa looked to correct their play as the second half kicked off and claw their way back from this 17-point deficit. After an All Black penalty for offsides, Steyn quickly slotted up three more points for the Springboks. And with a second penalty quickly called on the All Blacks, Steyn hit another penalty kick to tighten the score to 20-11, All Blacks, after 6 minutes in the second half.
The Springboks momentarily started to find their form, driving into the All Blacks territory on multiple occasions, only to be turned away after crashing into the Great Wall of Blackness, or letting their frustrations show on the field as sloppy play that the All Blacks took advantage of.
Quickly putting the Springboks on their back foot, the All Blacks drove yet again into the heart of the Springbok turf as Kieran Read stormed through four South African defenders to score the All Blacks’ third, and probably decisive, try.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, the All Blacks continued the assault and shut down repeated Springbok counterattacks in their infancy. At the 79th minute, after a series of collapsed scrums a few meters from the South African goal line, the All Blacks turned a penalty run into a driving maul and a Tony Woodcock try, once again carrying part of the South African defense into the end zone.
Penalties were a bane for both sides. The All Blacks saw several chance to increase their lead squandered, while the South African defense gave up their own penalties allowing the All Blacks chances to restart their attack.
Notes: Despite grumblings about his position on the All Blacks roster, Joe Rokocoko’s name came up quite often during the Springbok match as part of the All Blacks’ repeated counterattacks. It seemed as if knowing he had something to prove, Rokocoko flew to the ball in attack and defense, and while not scoring points himself, directly led to Nonu’s try in the first half. … Team frustration of the Springboks inability to counter the All Black’s power game started to show as the game wore on. With the Springboks missing an uncharacteristic 23 tackles and surrendering four tries, tempers started to flare. This writer caught repeated video of South African players engaging in some of their most enjoyable pastimes – throwing punches behind the ref’s back and shoving around players without the ball. Players did receive warnings from referee Lewis on more than one occasion.