Springboks awakened the Rugby Championship
OPINION: The Springboks’ stunning 36-34 win over the All Blacks in Wellington was an instant classic.
A classic that was, despite excellent rugby played by both sides, made great by a string of high-stakes errors in the final quarter.
The last twenty minutes descended into chaos as the All Blacks looked to chase down the Springboks, running on fumes after building a 14-point lead and amassing 36 points.
This was an epic creation built on pressure-cooker situations, each bigger than the last, searching for a villain to hang the blame on.
It wasn’t just Beauden Barrett’s missed ‘sitters’, McKenzie’s last phase spill or the drop goal non-event. Ask any Springboks fan how they felt when Francois Louw dropped the ball cold near halfway with two and a half minutes remaining, watching the All Blacks race down the field to the 5-metre line. Louw’s return ticket to South Africa was only saved by a slightly errant TJ Perenara pass, intended for Savea but knocked on by a reaching Ofa Tu’ungafasi a few phases later. The pressure of the moment was getting to both sides.
The emotions swung wildly again when moments later, Handre Pollard’s exit kick achieved a net gain of five metres, giving the All Blacks another crack with a lineout from 10 metres out.
The greatness of this match wasn’t the clinical execution of play, it was the hot-potato, see-sawing nature of the outcome. The angst, emotion, and stakes grew with each blunder and culminated in one last play as the Springboks survived by the skin of their teeth – and it was amazing.
The Springboks’ defensive resolve was desperate. They were pushed to the edge many times but held strong when they needed to most. There were countless moments of pure heart that showed dogged determination – Warren Whiteley’s chase down tackle on TJ Perenara, Cheslin Kolbe, after a few defensive lapses, standing ground against Rieko Ioane one-on-one and getting help to bundle him into touch, Pieter-Steph du Toit’s immense 24 tackles, Faf de Klerk making a try-saving cover tackle on the streaking Rieko Ioane.
There were many more moments of brilliance based on character rather than on talent – which sums up this test. The Springboks found a way to push past pain and fight through adversity, protecting the lead despite being reduced to 14 men. It was desperation that pulled this side through.
This All Blacks’ loss is also a timely reminder of the knife-edge decisions that decide the outcome of a test when the score is close in the dying stages.
The decision to attack for a try instead of a drop goal is the easiest critique to make, but there are many moments that can be pinpointed as opportunities lost. There are sometimes split-second decisions like a pass or run, and sometimes minutes of deliberation before scrums and lineouts to decide the next step of action that can decide a match – both had an influence in this match.
Earlier in the week, we detailed the base play the All Blacks have been running for two years now from set-piece attack and how Sonny Bill Williams at 12 makes the play much more effective. With time up on the clock, the All Blacks called the same play once again.
The Springboks have winger Cheslin Kolbe defending at inside-centre for this play, and at such close proximity to the line, targeting his outside channel would likely see the All Blacks centre Jack Goodhue crash over in the contact.
The All Blacks have a 4-on-3 overlap to that side, but show no intent on utilising it, with Ryan Crotty ramming directly into Kolbe and Jesse Kriel covering from the inside. With Willie Le Roux caught trying to cover both Goodhue and Ioane, a short pass from Crotty would see Goodhue stroll over untouched for the game-winning try.
Even in the set-up, Goodhue would know he is unmarked, sighting Le Roux covering his bets and he could make that known to Crotty prior to running the play .
Crotty’s decision to run directly at Kolbe instead of using quick hands to pass to the open Goodhue, who called for the pass, is just one of many that you can highlight as determining this match.
Goodhue is wide open, running into a huge gap with no one in his path to the line. With Le Roux unlikely to touch him and covering flanker Francois Louw unlikely to either, this split-second decision could be more important than the strategic one to play for a try instead of the drop goal.
At most, this moment could be argued to have the second-largest bearing on the match outcome, and at least, demonstrates just how many instances you can look at when ‘looking’ for blame.
The All Blacks have recently had very few experiences where the game is decided in the closing stages. This loss will spark new conversations about what they did, what they could have done and what they should do in the future as they build the roadmap to next year’s Rugby World Cup.
The test the Springboks gave them is so far, the best of the year and sets up a scintillating return match at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in a few weeks time. For the Springboks, they now have the opportunity to do what the 2009 Springboks did and sweep the All Blacks in a calendar year, creating their own slice of history.
The Rugby Championship has finally awakened with the competition it needs.