New Zealand was handled by South Africa in a 26-10 win in the first match of the 2022 Rugby Championship. For the fourth time in punting history, the All Blacks entered the underdog by about 3 points, but until late in the match, it seemed 3 points would be all they’d score.
The Springboks brought a power game and did not miss a beat despite losing starting nine Faf de Klerk in the first minute after he tried to bend Caleb Clark’s colossal knee.
Arguably, Jaden Hendrickse then outplayed the best scrumhalf in the last ten years: Aaron Smith.
Smith was not to blame. The All Blacks lost the scrum battle (4-1 in penalties, as Angus Gardner was not in the mood to forgive slips and lost binds). This kept them trapped in their half in the first half. Frans Malherbe continued his record of winning the tighthead: he is plus-34 in his career in penalties won/lost.
The visitors also lost the breakdown, with 50-cap Malcolm Marx dominant, but supported by Lukhanyo Am, a lively Pieter-Steph du Toit, and massive cleaning by the locks who ruled the pitch: Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.
The game was almost already lost before deep in the second half, the All Blacks won enough territory to build red zone phases. The Boks played old school rugby in Mbombela, hard and direct and strong.
Handre Pollard and Hendrickse out thought the Kiwi kickers who seemed to find the Bok back three over and over in space, from whence Damian Willemse easily pinned the stifled All Blacks back in their half. Against a frenetic Bok high line, with behind-the-line defenders hunting loose ball and passes, the All Blacks simply could not launch from deep, except for one or two breaks. Shoelace tackles by the Boks or cover scramble saved the day until down one man, Caleb Clarke finally got close and a fresh Shannon Frizzell was rewarded for chasing.
It was a squeeze game. It was a scorpion, dangerous, but put in a bottle, and never let out.
The All Blacks simply needed more Ardie Saveas. Carries seemed to be futile into the green wall.
But the most impressive edge besides the starting Bok front row (4-0 in penalties) was the aerial battle. The All Blacks named Clarke against diminutive Kurt-Lee Arendse, but KLA was on fire, taking clever angles around the All Black shepherds and high ball guards. By last count, the sky went the Boks’ way 8-2.
The first really poor loss led to a brilliant Bok try, with Am clever at finding the scraps and feeding a streaking Arendse who had beaten a shell shocked 6 foot 5 Jordie Barrett in the air.
Exits were poor by the All Blacks, they lost the aerial battle all game, their haka was unconvincing, and Ellis Park is higher and bigger and louder.
The Bok defence is very, very high and makes mad incursions (PDST, Marx, the nines, and Etzebeth all have licence to roam out of the defensive line).
Barrett does not look as comfortable as Mo’unga up against this setup, but to be fair, his midfield was badly outplayed by de Allende and Am, so Barrett was tempted to join Savea in “hero ball.”
The bright spots: Jason Ryan’s maul defence was better, until the second half when the All Blacks seemed to tire more than the Boks, ominous for next week.
The bigger problems are these:
1. How can NZ get over the gain line?
2. Who are their best two props at scrum?
3. How can they hold some good territory if they don’t know the answers to 1 and 2?
4. Why is there so little variation on restarts?
5. Who can bring more speed and power in loose to help Savea?
6. Is Cane playing well enough to justify his spot?
7. Who can bring calm urgency back?
It was fitting and quite lovely to see Willemse, who has now replaced his mentor, and beloved teammate, Willie le Roux, celebrate with sheer joy as ‘Spiders’ pounced on yet another loose All Black pass to score near the posts and be hugged by a nation.
26-10 seems about right, but 19-3 would have been exactly right. It was a suffocation.
From the Irish series, the All Blacks made changes but it made no difference.
Marx loves playing the All Blacks. His 4.5 turnovers, hard carries, big tackles, and pinpoint throwing was massive.
It was a commanding performance by the Boks. Not as pretty or uplifting or Michelin star as the Irish, but a big braai of juicy meat and brandy.
The oddly off-kilter All Blacks continue a bad season (for their standards) and maybe even more so than against the Irish, could just not seem to get into the game.
Nothing seemed to work except line breaks off 50-50 money balls. The Bok tacklers backed NZ up and got in deep — not just getting up and reversing back into line.
After the match, always honest Cane admitted: “We absorbed it in the first half but it took a lot out of us. The kicking game, the contestables, they probably won that too. And the breakdown.”
In a Test against the Boks, that is usually all it takes to lose.
On to Johannesburg.
Rugby – The Roar