All guts, no glory

JON CARDINELLI reports on the 29-22 victory that boosted the All Blacks to the Tri-Nations title and a clean sweep over the Springboks in 2010.

What an anticlimax. You would have expected the Boks to finish this game with a lap of the field; their record-breaking captain riding high on their shoulders. Instead, John Smit’s team-mates had to lift him from the deck at the final whistle. Smit’s devastation said it all. Four losses from four matches, the last defeat coming on the Highveld.

In the final analysis, the result confirmed why guts and passion are simply insufficient in the big Tests. The game was there for the taking, but the Boks were beaten by a better team.

Smit’s initial entrance set the tone for an improved Bok effort. The camera tracked Smit’s progress down the tunnel and as he emerged, 94 000 fans rose in rapturous recognition of a decade of contributions in green and gold. Riding on that wave of euphoria, South Africa’s biggest crowd belted out a deafening rendition of the national anthem and drowned out New Zealand’s haka with a cacophonous ‘Ole, ole, ole’.

Many felt this energy would give the Boks the edge they lacked Down Under, and in the opening stages it certainly made a difference. Inspired by the gritty Juan Smith, the Bok pack turned in an aggressive showing, and from that platform, halfbacks Francois Hougaard and Morne Steyn proceeded to implement the kick-chase strategy.

The accuracy of these high bombs troubled the All Blacks’ back three, but the hosts struggled to take advantage of these mistakes. Their lineout continued to disappoint, Smit conceding possession in the first two set-pieces, and Victor Matfield battling to contest effectively on opposition ball.

Sensing the weight of occasion and how it may evoke a robust showing by South Africa’s forwards, the All Blacks avoided extensive confrontation. They often exposed the Bok defence in the wide channels, and showed a willingness to run back the less accurate kicks, keeping the ball alive even if it meant surrendering as many as 10 metres.

Some patient phase play led to a clinical try by Schalk Burger, but the Boks conceded a breakdown penalty that was goaled by Dan Carter almost immediately after. The defence lapsed in that crucial period before half-time when Brad Thorn broke the line and set up a wide-sweeping move which culminated in a simple run-in for Tony Woodcock.

The visitors bossed territory in the second half and were helped by the Boks’ misguided intentions. The home team would defend like demons, but a counter-surge so often resulted in a loss of possession.

A three-pointer by Steyn in the 64th minute established a comfortable 22-14 gap, an advantage the Boks seemed unlikely to relinquish. But an instant of indiscipline gave the All Blacks a sniff, a breakdown transgression by CJ van der Linde allowing Carter a simple penalty.

Carter missed a subsequent shot, but the All Blacks continued to apply the pressure. Another quick shift to the wing caught the Boks napping, and a great finish by Richie McCaw leveled the scores.

Carter missed the touchline conversion, but it didn’t matter, as a Ma’a Nonu linebreak sparked the clinching try for Israel Dagg. It seemed fitting that the move was birthed from a breakdown turnover, although on this occasion the All Blacks counter-ruck menace provided the forward momentum.

The result gives the All Blacks a clean sweep over the Boks in 2010, a record that will give them psychological points going into a World Cup year. It also wraps up the title for McCaw’s men and leaves the Boks on one solitary log point after four matches.

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