Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from South Africa v New Zealand as All Blacks show vast improvement

James While

Following a 35-23 victory for New Zealand over South Africa in their Rugby Championship clash, here’s our five takeaways from the match at Ellis Park.

Top line

In an absolutely remarkable turnaround of fortune, New Zealand beat South Africa to retain the Freedom Cup in front of 62,000 at Ellis Park in a match they simply couldn’t afford to lose.

With tries from Sam Cane, Samisoni Taukei’aho, David Havili and Scott Barrett, supported by 15 points off the tee from the outstanding Richie Mo’unga, the All Blacks played with pace, intellect and purpose against an unusually inaccurate and ponderous Springbok side.

The first eight minutes underlined the intent of the All Blacks, with only poor execution hampering their try-scoring ambitions. Crucially, they edged the battle of the set-pieces and breakdown, a remarkable feat considering their deficiencies last weekend.

But it wasn’t all one way traffic. After 60 minutes with the scores at 21-20 to the Boks, New Zealand managed to dig deep enough to find a wonderful coast-to-coast score from Havili followed by a close range effort by Barrett to seal a memorable evening for beleaguered coach and captain, Ian Foster and Cane.

New Zealand’s improvement

Labour under no misapprehension, this was a big step up from New Zealand in terms of their accuracy, intensity and above all, their game plan than we’ve seen from their last four Tests. Clearly a lot of analysis and tactical discussion has taken place over the last seven days and this looked a side that finally had a plan.

Above all they played with pace in everything they did. They also performed a lot better in the aerial battle with Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan making some big catches under huge pressure to shore up the usually effective Springbok kick and chase game.

They changed their defensive system, playing narrower but rushing faster and focusing on ball not man. The visitors used speed and intellect to maintain minimum commitment of numbers at ruck time, using Aaron Smith’s rapier pass to spread width onto the ball and using their one-out running skills to deliver some serious metres, notably from Rieko Ioane and Ardie Savea.

It was a masterclass in turnaround coaching from a management team under the greatest pressure and Foster can treat himself to a quiet smile tonight.

Big games

Although Ioane received the player of the match award, this was a win based upon the return to form and the pride of a number of senior players.

Sam Whitelock enjoyed one of his best outings in recent years as he rather unusually took the middle of the Springbok lineout apart, winning four steals against the throw and adding in a couple of jackal efforts to crown a memorable personal night. He also prised a crucial referral out of referee Luke Pearce for an obstruction by Jaden Hendrikse, that may have been overlooked if it hadn’t been for the indignant waving arms of the All Black lock.

Smith played at a level that some had thought had left him: he sniped, dummied and kicked brilliantly, controlling every aspect of the match with Mo’unga, who also benefited from a big step up in intensity from Havili outside him.

Beating the Springbok back-row is no mean feat, yet man to man the Kiwi trio had better games than their counterparts, with Cane particularly energetic. It was a performance designed with intellect, delivered with passion and built with excellence in a match that the great All Blacks simply could not afford to lose.

Basic errors

We often talk about the simplicity and brutality of South African rugby. Sure, it’s a very simple game plan, but the key to Springbok tactics is the legality and accuracy that they deliver their plans with. Once in their own world of the three set-piece battles and their powerful mauling, they can and do beat any side in the world, but today it was accuracy that let them down.

Joseph Dweba had an absolute shocker of a game: scrum infringements, lineout errors and defensive mistakes saw him yanked off at 34 minutes, not so much by the ‘Bomb Squad’ but by the refuse collectors. Duane Vermeulen, a Bok icon, really struggled to create the direct yardage that Jasper Wiese has offered in his absence and Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager were for once bettered in the lineout by their opponents.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for South Africa. Despite the loss, the interplay between Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Damian Willemse and the brilliant Lukhanyo Am was on another level to the recent showings from the hosts. In adversity and having to rearrange their backline after Jesse Kriel went off, the passing and the ambition finally clicked. It might have been a loss on the board, but the green shoots of attack finally started to sprout.

Implications and learnings

In a match with some controversial and complex refereeing decisions, it would be easy for South Africa to go full on Rassie and question some of Pearce’s decisions. The penalty for blocking by Hendrikse seemed harsh, if not technically correct. However, on replay, most of his calls looked on point and it was the early inaccuracy of the Boks that really cost them. As mentioned above, their backline at the end looked to really be firing and the biggest talking points for them will be selecting the best 15 to start (which undoubtedly features Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Le Roux) and making sure that they kick off hot and accurately.

For New Zealand, this is breathing space and no more. Foster’s pressure comes off momentarily and he’s earned the right now to stay to the end of the Rugby Championship. What he has learned is his best starting backline and also just how important breakdown and defensive structures are. The All Blacks have relied far too long on one-out brilliance; this crisis has forced them to re-examine and to adapt, and rather paradoxically, has recalibrated everything they do to emerge a better looking team as a result.

READ MORE: Rugby Championship: All Blacks bounce back in style as losing run ends with victory over Springboks at Ellis Park