South Africa 23 (10) New Zealand 35 (15)
After being smashed in Mbombela, the All Blacks produced a performance of brutal physicality and smart running to reclaim the Freedom Cup for a 12th straight year.
They ended a three match-losing streak and stopped the Springboks from winning the Freedom Cup for the first time since 2009. The All Blacks now also have a better than even chance of winning the Rugby Championship.
There was certainly an element of ‘backs-to-the-wall’ mentality from the All Blacks and it’s probably too early to say if this result represents the start of a resurgence, or just a one-off spike. The next few weeks will be telling.
For the Boks though, the same questions could be asked in reverse. Was this one poor performance amid a growing body of good work, or are they not as good as they should be?
One thing is certain, the Boks are now under huge pressure for the away stretch of the Rugby Championship because their record in Australia is poor. A few more losses on the road in the coming month will certainly raise legitimate questions about the direction the team is going.
The final scoreline and margin perhaps flattered New Zealand with Scott Barrett’s late try, but the All Blacks started faster and finished stronger. That was telling.
The Boks began poorly and were never able to fully claim a foothold in the match, even though they briefly took the lead for the first time 12 minutes from the end.
Perhaps it was the seemingly never-ending pomp before the game, but it took an age after the teams emerged from the tunnel to start with a Boeing flyover and the Minister of Sport being presented to the teams. After the frothing frenzy of the anthems, everything went flat before the match started.
But in truth, the Boks lost this match in the selection process. No 8 Duane Vermeulen was not match ready and gave his most anonymous display in Bok colours.
He was pulled off five minutes before halftime. Hooker Joseph Dweba might be the coming man, but he’s not quite at the level of Malcom Marx and Bongi Mbonambi.
The strange decision to start the youngster when Mbonambi was ruled out with a knee injury, backfired and he was hooked on the half hour. By the time Marx entered the fray, the All Blacks held a 10-0 lead and had full momentum.
The Boks did not win a single breakdown turnover in the first half. The previous week at Mbombela, Marx won three in the first half alone and five in total.
With Vermeulen not able to fulfil that role in the early skirmishes because he was a yard off the pace, the All Blacks gained confidence. Marx is a momentum killer and without him on the field early on, the All Blacks created most of the momentum.
With quicker and unimpeded ruck ball, as well as a much more direct and physical approach, the All Blacks deservedly marched into a massive lead.
Tries from Same Cane in the 28th minute started from a deep linebreak by wing Caleb Clarke. The Boks missed too many tackles in the first half, and despite some brilliant scrambling defence at times – one tackle by wing Makazole Mapimpi and another by lock Eben Etzebeth were special – the home team’s woes were compounded.
Hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho, who had a strong game, scored the All Blacks’ second try after good work by his fellow forwards dented the Boks’ defensive line. It was a long way back from there for the world champions.
The Boks’ issues were also compounded early on when Damian Willemse received a yellow card after killing the ball close to his line. It was the All Blacks’ first serious foray into Bok territory thanks to a masterful cross-field kick by flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, which found No 8 Ardie Savea.
A few minutes later wing Jesse Kriel staggered off after crashing into Clarke’s knee, which forced Wille le Roux into the battle far earlier than coach Jacques Nienaber would’ve wanted.
That meant a backline reshuffle with Damian Willemse moving to centre and Lukhanyo Am to the wing. While it was not ideal, both Willemse and Am were excellent in their reshuffled positions.
Am in particular, was sensational. He scored the Boks first try after halftime, breaking out of Clarke’s tackle and brushing off two more. He constantly broke the line and was a major threat.
Midway through the second half, Am burst out of the 22 and sent Mapimpi away for a wonderful try, but referee Luke Pearce reviewed and decided that scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse had blocked Scott Barrett from tackling Am.
It was a marginal call at best and from the ensuing penalty, New Zealand moved into a 21-13 lead with a quarter of the game to go. Pearce also awarded a soft penalty when Jasper Wiese tackled Aaron Smith after the whistle had gone. There was nothing in it, but the three points Mo’unga gratefully added, turned the screw on the Boks further.
From the restart to that penalty, though, Marx won a turnover and the ball went left where Mapimpi finished well to close the lead to a point. Marx’s excellent work only enhanced the feeling of what might have been, if he started.
Handre Pollard’s third penalty shortly afterwards pushed the Boks into a 23-21 lead and the feeling that the momentum was with them.
But that momentum quickly shifted: a box kick by Hendrikse’ was marked by Will Jordan, who then took a quick tap and the All Blacks broke from deep as the Boks’ defence went to sleep.
Despite some courageous scrambling by Am, the visitors took it through several more phases before centre David Havili scored the game defining try.
The All Blacks might be going through a difficult time, but they have too many excellent rugby players to be taken lightly. The Boks were so dominant in Mbombela, perhaps they were over-confident for the return match at their Ellis Park fortress.
The All Black selections changed their side for the better, although there were only five scrums in the entire match, which meant the props on both sides were judged mainly on their work in the loose.
But Mo’unga was excellent at flyhalf, pulling strings and often pinning the Boks back with accurate, raking kicks or finding a way around their rush defence. Shannon Frizell also brought much-needed physicality to the pack and that appeared to lift Cane, who had his best game of the season.
There was a change in tactic from the home team though, who kicked fewer contestable kicks and moved the ball wide more often than they have all season. They profited as both tries they scored were a result of that ambition.
But they were inaccurate on defence – especially in the first half – and again couldn’t get the rolling maul to fire consistently.
Sam Whitelock has been around many blocks and his nous in organising maul defence was superb, while he also poached a couple of Bok lineouts.
In the context of where this All Blacks side is, compared to where the world champions are, this was one of New Zealand’s greatest wins in South Africa. Better All Blacks side have lost to worse Bok teams.
They were under huge pressure coming into the match and they embraced it. They silenced the 61000 crowd early and leave South Africa with a vital scalp that will do wonders for their development.
South Africa – Tries: Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi. Conversions: Handre Pollard (2). Penalties: Pollard (3).
New Zealand – Tries: Sam Cane, Samisoni Taukei’aho, David Havili, Scott Barrett. Conversions: Richie Mo’unga (3). Penalties: Mo’unga (3). DM