Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from All Blacks v Springboks clash as Rugby World Cup marker thrown down

James While
All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith celebrates.

All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith celebrates.

Following the All Blacks’ 35-20 win over the Springboks, Planet Rugby unpacks five takeaways from the clash at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland.

The top line

This was an apex Test match – another absolute classic in the greatest of all rivalries and one that saw New Zealand put in one of their finest performances under Ian Foster’s tenure.

There was something about New Zealand’s early blast and then the ability to hang into the match as their opponents threw everything at them that was reminiscent of England’s showing against the All Blacks in 2019 – it was a brilliant start, undoubtedly engineered by the razor-sharp mind of Joe Schmidt and one designed to fight power with pace and intellect.

There was very little that went wrong for New Zealand; their scrum competed, they won the early battle of the gainline and they demonstrated clear aerial superiority in the wide channels, a key battle area in this Test and one that gave New Zealand three scoring chances which they gleefully accepted.

Considering the Springbok performance last weekend against Australia, this was a Test match that many thought they were the marginal favourites before kick-off, but after 80 minutes the All Blacks had sent out a loud message to the rugby community ahead of the Rugby World Cup – “We are in it to win it!”

15 monumental minutes

The All Blacks‘ opening 15 minutes was as near to rugby from the Gods as you will ever see.

The stats speak for themselves – 93% possession, 100% ruck and set-piece success, and 100% tackle completion. Oh, and the small matter of 17 magnificent points.

The key to their success was variety; a combination of playing the game at extreme pace but crucially, hitting competing rucks hard whilst also looking to vary the point of impact with short passing close to the defence.

It challenged the big static forwards of South Africa and they simply didn’t know what hit them in those initial moments. That pace, combined with some daring cross-kicking from the All Black pivots and wonderful aerial retention, made the Boks look almost dazed and confused, due to the sheer number of different attacking points the hosts created.

It’s all about having the confidence to execute under pressure. Their carriers provided a platform of supreme intellect, pace and power, the backline, with Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga playing as dual 10s, their outside backs ran with thunderclap speed, competing in the air, using variations, and with Will Jordan and Mark Telea running riot in the outside channels and air, the Boks were lucky to concede just two tries.

The Shannon Frizell try was just reward for the man who dominated those minutes both sides of the ball, and New Zealand’s forwards showed their superb skill-set with wonderful handling by Codie Taylor to send the big flank over.

Bok response

If South Africa look back at this match with honesty they should learn three lessons from their performance. One, start your best side. Two, leadership and clarity of thought are absolutely key. Three, they need to sort out their aerial game on the touchlines.

It is all very well suggesting that you’ve got the best bench in the world but it’s pointless selecting that if your starting XV isn’t the best available.

Last weekend against Australia we saw a Bok team with firepower, forward power and intellectual power, whereas this weekend, you might consider that the players recalled offered less that the ones they replaced. In particular, South Africa missed Andre Esterhuizen, a huge threat against Australia, and when RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen and Malcolm Marx trotted on in the second half, so the Boks pack started to rumble. In simple terms, they looked a far better team at the final whistle than they did at the first.

Their leadership looked confused too, In the midst of the early All Black onslaught, the Boks looked like rabbits in headlights, with no ability to exit or retain possession. There was no one, in soccer terms, to put their foot on the ball, slow things down and control the chaos. The last thing South Africa need is emotional leadership – they need cool, calm technical leadership and that was wholly absent.

New Zealand stars

On the flip side the All Blacks also endorsed a lot of their own thinking about their side and despite the popular picture of wonderful running, their key lesson is the control that Mo’unga and Aaron Smith create at half-back.

They also confirmed that this is just about their best starting XV, with the possible addition of Sam Whitelock and Ethan Blackadder, and that Frizell is finally the answer to the previously unsolved issues at blindside flank.

But the real lessons were those of structure, despite the chaos and opportunism they created. The basics of set-piece and wonderful aerial control underpinned their handling brilliance; Jordan and Telea were magnificent in controlling cross-field kicks and the back-row showed real focus in controlling the drop zone too. The scrum went well (although the Boks were very unlucky to concede two penalties for the mysterious offence of hinging – which doesn’t appear in the laws – when the New Zealand tighthead looked to be collapsing) and the breakdown/contact work was, as noted earlier regarding changing the point of contact, quite superb in its design and execution.

Above all, New Zealand emerged from this game with a structure and plan that perhaps has been lacking in recent times – a double pivot set up with width, playing with blinding pace and confident execution.

In short, they were magnificent and their coaches will be very happy tonight.

What’s next?

New Zealand need to capture the chaos and emotion of their opening quarter. They’re almost the polar opposite in terms of leadership need in so far as they ooze technical ability and input but on Saturday they took their emotions and channelled them into that super-hot start. If they can work on this and replicate it, they will be a serious force whoever they play.

For South Africa, it really is a question of regrouping and learning from this defeat. There is no doubt that New Zealand had something near their best 2023 starting XV on the paddock, but you’d wonder if the Boks were doing the same thing. There’s no doubt they have the riches in their squad but playing BOKv19 rugby when they are capable of playing BOKv23 rugby like last weekend is unlikely to see them retain the World Cup. Manie Libbok and Kurt-Lee Arendse are both brilliant assets and need to be trusted now before it is too late; the option of Esterhuizen over the consistently underwhelming Damian de Allende is another option that cries out to be tested, and it’s clear Snyman, Vermeulen and Du Toit are irreplaceable in their positions at this moment in time.

Rugby moves on with each Rugby World Cup cycle and their lesson should be one of ‘dare to win’; to embrace the talent they have and to perhaps play a more liberally minded and wider game than the conservative style of their successful 2019 campaign.

Do that and the next game against New Zealand might be even better than this wonderful advertisement for the Rugby Championship.

READ MORE: All Blacks make statement with dominant victory over the Springboks