New Zealand came up short against South Africa in the Tri-Nations on Saturday, going down 28-19 after fighting back from 17-3 down.
As with last week, it was the first half that cost the All Blacks. A dire 47 minutes left them trailing 17-3 and having had barely a sniff of the line. Only when Conrad Smith wove his way through three tackles to score a scintillating solo try did the belief finally begin to course through the black shirts. This time it was too late.
Last week's slow All Black start could have been forgiven. But this is now two weeks in a row. The first-half statistics - three line-outs lost out of seven, two scrums out of five, only 20 per cent of the first half-hour possession and eight penalties conceded - would be gruesome reading for Graham Henry and co. in isolation, but couple that with similar stats from last week and you have a burgeoning problem. Expect a first half of fire and improved set pieces from the All Blacks in Durban next week in response.
South Africa's gameplan was as limited as we have seen all year - even more so than against the Lions. So much for Peter de Villiers' initial ideals of expansive and beautiful rugby. Debate rages on about whether he coaches the team or they do their own thing with him giving bits of advice, but the unity of purpose here suggests that players and coach are now singing from the same songsheet, regardless of whose it is.
It ain't pretty though. Bryan Habana had nothing to do bar chasing kicks, a task he set about with gusto - it probably saved him from frostbite, so cold was the rarified Bloemfontein air. Fourie du Preez controlled the game peerlessly from the base of the scrum with the boot, teaching Brendon Leonard a masterclass in the measured arts. It was no coincidence that when Piri Weepu brought his own culture to the game, things evened up immeasurably - Graham Henry should take careful note there, using Weepu and Leonard with the latter making an impact would have been a far better option.
Leonard was also penalised twice for feeding at the scrum; a laudable initiative from Alain Rolland but one he failed to sustain. one scrum feed, from Fourie du Preez in the second half, actually surprised number eight Spies so much that the ball popped out and was stolen by the All Blacks. Overfeed!
The South African ball rarely made it past the centres; so blinkered were they to the concept of keeping it near the forwards that even Jean de Villiers at one point eschewed a three-man overlap, not even looking outside, and popped it inside to an onrushing forward. Stephen Donald's channel was mercilessly targeted, a tactic which only really half-worked.
The driving maul, also frequently employed, worked a good deal better. Out of all the nations in world rugby to try and react since those abominable ELVs were dropped, South Africa have mastered the driving maul the best.
But the abrasion and pressure created by the green-clad Leviathans bullied out the penalties which ultimately won them the game. Had Ruan Pienaar had his kicking boots on, it could have been wrapped up by the break.
New Zealand's attempts to move the ball wide foundered under that forward pressure as well, not to mention some abysmal execution at times which occasionally left you wondering if the All Blacks hadn't merely first met each other on the flight over. Again, Leonard's hesitancy as he felt his way into the game was a drawback, but neither Nonu nor Donald found any change from the defence and Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu were wrapped up tight. Once throttled, the All Black game went limp.
The visitors took an early lead after De Villiers had conceded a needless penalty for a late tackle and Donald had landed his first, but that was cancelled out by Frans Steyn from over 50m when Brad Thorn was caught not rolling away.
Pienaar hit the post with two more penalties - one of them a sitter - as the home side's intensity with the ball up-jumper and accuracy with the boot told. The ball-carrying from Juan Smith and Pierre Spies in particular was exceptional.
Pienaar made it third time lucky as the All Blacks collapsed a maul, precipitating a nine-minute spell where the Boks did not leave the All Blacks 22 except to take a line-out for a clearance kick. It culminated in a try for Pienaar, who looped the tackled De Villiers and cantered though the space vacated by Rokocoko into the corner.
Frans Steyn added a penalty on the half-hour to make it 14-3, Pienaar missed another sitter on the stroke of half-time as the Boks took full control.
Pienaar did not emerge from the dressing room after the break as a result of a foot injury, but replacement Morne Steyn fitted the initial bill, landing the first penalty of the half for a marginal offside involving Smith.
Momentum swung dramatically when Smith scored his try, with New Zealand looking more energetic, more effective and more cohesive. Passes stuck, turnovers were forced, gaps sprung up in the green wall. Donald narrowed the gap from the tee to 17-13, having converted the try. It seemed as if those missed kicks might come back to haunt the Boks.
Frans Steyn steadied the boat with a penalty, but Donald once again pegged him back. New Zealand had it all to do still with 17 minutes to go but the opposition was in sight.
But with eight minutes to go, Weepu dithered at the back of a ruck and Kieran Read over-ran him. Spies hacked the ball forward, Weepu rescued it then threw a silly no-look past, picked off by Juan Smith who gave Jaque Fourie the run-in for the killer try.
In the final minutes, Donald's penalty gave New Zealand license to dream of a late winner once more before Morne Steyn sealed the deal with two minutes to go.
Man of the match: Hard work up front was the order of the day, and the hardest and most effective grafter of all was Pierre Spies. He's not just about the tries he scores in Super 14...
Moment of the match: The killer blow was Jaque Fourie's try
Villain of the match: A few bits of niggle, but nothing too untoward.
For South Africa:
Tries: Pienaar, Fourie
Pens: F Steyn 2, Pienaar, M Steyn 3
For New Zealand:
Pens: Donald 4
South Africa: 15 Frans Steyn, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Heinrich Brussow, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 John Smit (c), 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Danie Rossouw, 19 Ryan Kankowski, 20 Ricky Januarie, 21 Morne Steyn, 22 Wynand Olivier.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Joe Rokocoko , 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Jason Eaton, 19 Kieran Read, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Luke McAlister, 22 Cory Jane .
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Tim Hayes (Wales)
TMO: Johann Meuwesen (South Africa)
By Richard Anderson