JON CARDINELLI, reporting from Soccer City, watched the All Blacks punish the Springboks in the latter stages of Saturday’s Test to win 32-16.
Usually you have to wait until the end of a game for the climax, but for the South African fans at Soccer City, the best time to be around was in that period before kickoff, and the 20 minutes thereafter.
The Calabash wasn’t filled to capacity, but then 80 000 people can still make one helluva racket. Picture the majority of that 80 000 screaming the lyrics of Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika and then drowning out the Kapa o Pango, the All Blacks’ special haka reserved for big contests. If you didn’t feel the prickle of gooseflesh in that opening salvo, you must be made out of stone.
And then the Boks played. They clattered into the collisions. They pilfered lineout ball and assaulted the All Blacks’ scrum. They used that set-piece platform to good effect, scoring from a lineout near halfway.
Not many teams score against the All Blacks, and very few do it from first phase. And to go 50m for that five pointer – well it would have to be something special. It certainly was.
From the lineout, the ball flew to Duane Vermeulen who immediately turned his back to the opposition and offloaded to team-mate Francois Louw. Louw then did the same, and the move worked in that the other member of the Bok loose trio, Willem Alberts, was free to hit the gap.
The All Blacks managed to bring Alberts down but not before the big man tossed the ball up for a support player. The All Blacks attempted to intercept this pass, but only succeeded in knocking it further backward and out of reach. Jean de Villiers succeeded in coming through and winning the ball, and then finding the omnipresent Bryan Habana. When the winger rounded the poles, the crowd erupted. It was a thrilling standalone moment.
Johan Goosen had missed two difficult penalty attempts earlier in the half, but he made no mistake with this conversion or his subsequent penalty attempt. The result was a 10-0 advantage for the Boks. Against all expectations, the underdogs had raced to a commanding lead.
But soft moments – a phrase coined by Heyneke Meyer to describe his side’s tendency to lapse – have cost the Boks all season, and it was a series of soft moments that saw the Boks relinquishing this big lead.
The Boks lost concentration in the period before half-time. Bad decisions and unforced errors allowed the All Blacks back into the game, first through a try by Sam Whitelock and then another by Aaron Smith.
Elton Jantjies, on for the injured Goosen, kicked some important goals to keep the Boks in front, but as the two teams headed down the tunnel, you got the sense that the momentum had shifted in the visitors’ favour.
This was confirmed when the All Blacks scored in the first movement of the second half. The kickoff wasn’t claimed and the ball was shifted wide. Kieran Read found space down the right-hand flank and raced 40m before popping the ball to Ma’a Nonu for the try.
The Boks’ defence went from bad to worse. The All Blacks succeeded in stretching them out wide on a number of occasions, and worryingly, the Boks were starting to fall off tackles.
It was an embarrassing moment when the All Blacks cantered in for their fourth try, Conrad Smith scoring from a first-phase move. Having trailed by 10 points at one stage, the All Blacks were now 10 points ahead.
There was no way back for the Boks. Dan Carter, who looked all too mortal at times with some unforced errors of his own, began to find form as the game progressed. He booted a 60m monster of a penalty to extend the lead to 13, and then nailed a drop goal a few moments later to widen the gap to 16.
A 16-point win can’t be called ugly. The All Blacks came to play the Boks on the Highveld, and while they had already secured the Rugby Championship title, they needed to win to keep their dream of breaking the record for most consecutive Test victories alive.
The pressure was on, and when it mattered, they delivered.
The Boks played well in patches, but their effort and precision wasn’t on point in the second stanza.
They will lament the mistakes that led to try-scoring opportunities for the All Blacks, and what amounted to a hiding on the scoreboard will serve as a reminder that while they are rated No 2 in the world, they’re still a long way behind this mighty All Blacks side.