All Blacks start with a win

New Zealand, coming from behind, showed their true class when beat South Africa 26-21 in their Tri-Nations showdown in Durban on Saturday – making sure their ranking as the world’s number one team, looking towards the World Cup, has been enhanced.

We all thought it would be a World Cup final dress rehearsal, and it did not disappoint. The match was played with an intensity somehow above that of last week’s opener, with a physicality that defied biology from where we sat in the stands, and it kept every one of the 53,000 spectators enthralled.

Tactically too, the game was fascinating. The All Blacks annihilated the Bok scrum – we saw for the first time today truly how much John Smit is missed – and spent quite a bit of the second half using their own bashers to eat away at the yardage, precisely the tactics hitherto attributed to the South Africans.

Joe Rokocoko, of all people, ignored a gaping three-man overlap on the left late in the game, eschewing that option for an inside pass to Tony Woodcock. Woodcock fumbled, and on moments like those: 18-12 down with fifteen to go, are matches lost.

Line-outs were the predicted disaster for the All Blacks, who lost five of their own throws and resorted to quick line-outs at every opportunity to combat their shortcoming. It worked after a fashion, but it led to much of their ball being hurried to start with, and the backs rarely got well-worked space with which to work.

Yet for all that, it was the maturity and execution of their wide game that told at the end, with two superb quick fire tries in four minutes turning the tables on their battered hosts.

What of the hosts, against whom a huge psychological blow has now been struck, beaten at home by their nemesis ten short weeks before the World Cup starts.

Once again, there was no faulting the commitment or desire, and for the large part, tactics. The loose battle was comprehensively sewn up, with the magnificent Schalk Burger delivering a barnstorming performance of tackling and ball-carrying.

Perhaps, right at the end, there was just that missing ounce of patience and calm required to close out games such as these. It will be a bitter blow to lose this game, but players such as Frans Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, and Pedrie Wannenburg – whose late yellow card was a major turning point – must look at the positives and learn, for the game could have been won. Many locals will insist it should have been.

The tone for the match was set in the warm-up, with the Boks spending their 30 or so on-pitch minutes smashing away at the pads in bunches and jumping at line-outs.

Meanwhile, the All Blacks ran balls through the hands in groups of four with effortless efficiency, practiced a couple of tackles and sprints, and then trotted off the field.

When the teams came back on, it was the Boks who put their warm-up into practice first, enjoying four solid minutes of possession and hammering away at the 10-12 channel with the thicker of the forward tree-trunk battering rams.

It almost cost them, with Jean de Villiers ignoring a clear overlap on the left, but eventually, after Bob Skinstad reminded us of what he can do with ball in hand with a sublime fizz pass to JP Pietersen, the pressure near the All Blacks’ line yielded a simple penalty for Percy Montgomery to fire the Boks into a 3-0 lead.

The early line-outs belonged to the Boks as well. They won five out of the first seven in total, two of those on the All Black throw, and the second saw Skinstad and then Danie Roussouw mere blades of grass away from the All Black line. A five-metre scrum resulted, but the All Black pack shoved the Boks off their own ball.

New Zealand stopped kicking for touch then, and a peculiar bout of aerial ping-pong ensued, culminating in a penalty for the All Blacks from 40m out and in front of the posts. Astonishingly, Daniel Carter missed.

New Zealand

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