South Africa, back on their game after last week's blip, have claimed the Tri-Nations with a bludgeoning 32-29 win over New Zealand.
South Africa, back on their game after last week's blip, have claimed the Tri-Nations with a bludgeoning 32-29 win over New Zealand in Hamilton.
New Zealand fell foul to sucker-punch after sucker-punch, with Francois Steyn landing three penalties from within his own half in the first half alone, as every minute indiscretion from the home side was punished ruthlessly.
The defence functioned again, letting the All Black backs have not a whiff of space. As the second half wore on and the All Blacks' chase of the Boks' lead grew increasingly frantic, the Boks relaxed into an all-too-familiar routine of tackling and waiting for the error to prey on. It's becoming a mental edge they have in that area now as well as a physical one.
Then, on 53 minutes, Jean de Villiers picked off a 50-50 pass as he has done so often for his country, and raced away to finish off the game as a contest under the posts. A minute later, Richie McCaw spilled a simple pass in midfield. In two acts, the contrasting tales of the two teams were told: one of patience and reward for eanest endeavour, the other of creative but futile attempts to move the immovable.
And yet somehow, they ended up clinging on for it. If there is a worry for this Springbok team going forward, it is the propensity to concede late tries which has seeped into their season. Australia managed it three times in three games, New Zealand managed it here to fight their way back from 29-12 down after De Villiers' effort. It was a belting finale.
That was one which, for the first hour, you would never have predicted in a million years. It was the usual Bok story: stealing line-outs, tackling behind the gain-line, forcing penalties, racking up points, kicking deep for territory and chasing hard not to lose it… just generally irritating, frustrating and battering the opposition.
Then there is Frans Steyn. It's a special kind of weapon to have in the arsenal when you can just shrug your shoulders on the award of a penalty on your own 10m line, point to the posts and relax as the ball goes sailing over the bar for three points. It's a hell of a thing to face as a team as well. You could see All Black necks crane as the kicks sailed over their heads, then see the heads click resignedly into place as the flags went up. New Zealand had all the territory in the opening quarter, yet found themselves trailing 9-6, two 50m+ penalties from Steyn and a snap drop goal from namesake Morne to two penalties from Carter.
Then came a classic Springbok try. The ball went up, up, up, the catcher – this time the unfortunate Joe Rokocoko – dropped it, Bakkies Botha took it on and Fourie du Preez sniped from the ruck to dive over the line and score. Morne Steyn landed his kick – not a single place-kick from either team was missed all day – and it was 16-6.
That sparked the All Blacks into action. Within two minutes the ball was being run by Sitiveni Sivivatu from his own 22, who got a little bit of change from his run but once again found his option so well closed down that there was never any danger. It was a feature of the rest of the half: the most telling moment coming when Stephen Donald took a ball on a charge and found it stripped from him expertly in the tackle.
A further double-exchange of penalties rounded off the half, with another monster from Frans and a chip from Morne countering two from Carter.
But again, New Zealand were left frustrated by the Bok defence right at the half's close. Having engineered a short line-out to good effect – full line-outs were a catastrophe for the ABs all day – the All Black forwards took the ball up close to the line, but it was too slow coming out and Carter's grubber was rendered ineffective by the sheer depth of the green-clad cover. New Zealand trailed by ten at the break and without a single try to their account in a match they needed to win and score four tries in. Only an effort akin to the infamous Paris blitz of November 2004 could have done the second-half job.
Instead, and following a televised half-time interview with Wayne Smith which had 'what on earth can we do' radiating from his every syllable, it was the Boks who came desperately close to scoring. Sivivatu mis-fielded a high kick, Morne Steyn seized upon it and set Bismarck du Plessis on his way to the line where he was tackled just short. Had Bakkies Botha not been quite so intent on cleaning out Mils Muliaina and looked to take an offload, he would surely have scored.
The body blows kept coming. Sivivatu panic-passed and nearly let the Boks get away again. John Smit put in a monster hit on Brad Thorn which even earned a handshake of admiration from the lock. New Zealand fluency faltered under the pressure. A Bok score was inevitable.
Finally De Villiers' sense for an intercept served him once again, in what will be his last match in green for some time, and the All Blacks could only look on distraught as he raced away, with Morne Steyn's conversion making it 29-12. Just after the restart came McCaw's spilled pass. It was all over?
Not quite. As McCaw said immediately afterwards when quizzed on the last half-hour: “I wish we could have done it from the start.”
Isaia Toeava's impact as he came on for Donald was immediate, as he took on a Ma'a Nonu offload and fed Sivivatu for a quick counter-try, with Carter converting expertly from the touchline. New Zealand's fluency upped as the Boks seemed content to sit back and try and soak it up. Carter landed another penalty and the All Blacks were back to within a score.
The Boks stormed into action once again, hounding Rokocoko under a high kick, charging up on Cowan for the clearance and with Du Plessis so nearly creating a try with a charge-down. A penalty was conceded in desperation and Morne Steyn restored the ten-point cushion.
Back came the home side, with flickers of 2004 in their speed and width. Breathless stuff abounded as the ball spun from one side to the other, with the green blanket finally stretched. Carter put in a super cross-kick and all McCaw had to do watch catch and fall for the try with two minutes to go. It usually takes a kicker a minute to prepare for a touchline conversion with no guarantee of success. Carter took 20 seconds and made it look nonchalant.
Still the black waves of pressure crashed, with width now the name of the game and with the forwards operating in pods on both sides. The hooter sounded. Carter got the ball and cross-kicked again. Long, long it sailed, curving downwards towards Kieran Read's outstretched hands, with the green defence scrambling across once more… but it was just too long. About a yard. It wasn't the hardest yard this Bok team has managed in this tournament, but it was the winning one.
Man of the match: Kieran Read, Dan Carter, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu all shone for New Zealand, while Pierre Spies, Schalk Burger, John Smit and Jean de Villiers were all on top