In the end it was the experience that told. You don’t have all those centurions like Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and the rest in your side and not know how to win games like this semi-final at Twickenham.
In the past, All Black sides have lost World Cups with performances such as Saturday’s. But against South Africa all those Tests, all that experience was made to count. There may have been flaws in All Black ranks – they were a long way off the side that hammered France a week ago – but when things were going wrong they had the rugby intellect to change things around.
South Africa? They didn’t.
Twenty four hours before the game Schalk Burger, a guy who has been around the block a few times and who has won a World Cup, said that the last thing to do when playing against the All Blacks was to sit back and hope something happens. “The big thing about them is their attack is phenomenal,” he said. “They back their execution and skillset so they put you under more pressure than any other team in the world.”
So what did South Africa do? They welcomed the All Blacks into their parlour and then spent most of the game trying to get them out, finding that they didn’t have the weapons needed to lift the siege. At a guess I’d reckon that New Zealand had possibly 70% of the territory and had they been more clinical the scoreboard might have been whizzing around.
The All Blacks’ range of skills from one to 15 means that every player is live. There are no big men hiding when the ball is being moved around. In attack, they can split themselves 50-50, right and left, backs and forwards, backing themselves to have the guys, no matter what position, to create and score tries. It is what happened in the sixth minute when McCaw, with the touch of a fly-half, put his fellow flanker Jerome Kaino in the corner.
Had the All Blacks followed it up with another score, the Boks would have been forced to play. Instead, lack of New Zealand discipline – strange that it took them so long to understand what Jérôme Garcès wanted at the breakdown – and the boot of Handré Pollard kept the Boks in the game and then ahead of the game during a first half in which the New Zealand penalty count must have been close to double figures – more than they normally average in 80 minutes of Test rugby.
It was a half when the All Blacks had the territory, only to prove fallible in parts of the game that are normally their strength. For example, twice in the run up to half-time, they stole South African lineout ball only to give it back immediately. Then Carter knocked on and finally Kaino got a yellow card for a dose of cynical lazy running or walking with intent in his case.
It’s not the way to play immediately before half-time and a confrontation with your coach. Steve Hansen looked suitably unimpressed and clearly got the message over quickly because the All Blacks were back on the field and in a huddle long before the Springboks emerged for the second half.
In fairness to the Boks their defence had been impressive, but they had no kicking game worth its salt to get them out of their own 22. Fourie du Preez had been excellent in that first half, but box kicks don’t get you out of the red zone – as we at Worcester found out against Sale on Friday night.
Outside the scrum-half, the kicking was terrible. Pollard’s attitude amounted to kick and hope, and no one else was around offering to help. So this was when Burger’s words came home to haunt him and his side. Camped in the South African 22, the All Blacks were bound to score a second try sooner or later, especially as they had stopped giving away the penalties that had released a lot of that first-half pressure .
First Carter chipped over a drop goal to cut the lead to three points, the arrival of Sonny Bill Williams made them more direct and incisive – and then the arrival of Beauden Barrett provided the width needed when Carter and Ma’a Nonu combined under the posts.
From then on, the All Blacks were running down time, with the Springboks still unable to get out of their own territory.
It didn’t help that the rain got ever harder, but at no time did the Boks look as though they were going to score a try let alone make the ground they needed to as the clock finally ran down.