How good a performance was that from the All Blacks, especially to wobble as they did in the second half, show the right composure and come back and finish over the top of South Africa, at their place, at altitude, and by a damn fine margin too.
Ian Foster should be recognised for getting the win in difficult circumstances, and for now it appears to have been enough to keep him in his head coach role, despite some serious flaws in his selections and game plan, not only this year, but last.
New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson has held a press conference before the side departs the republic and it seems a case of kicking the can down the road a bit with further discussions to be had once everyone gets back to New Zealand.
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Robinson was certainly not going to be drawn into further support of Ian Foster. He said they would confirm by the middle of the coming week. No matter what one thinks of Fosters performance, this is not a great position he is being left in – limbo land.
But no matter the outcome, Foster’s late decisions to make the changes this side so obviously needed have placed him into a position where he is still in jeopardy.
His reticence to hand the game reins over the Richie Mo’unga earlier this year when the All Blacks were screaming out for game management has hurt him. Mo’unga at 10 showed what a calm head can do, buying time for his quality distribution, winning the kicking battle and pinning the Bokke back, but also Mo’unga just lives in the line.
He presents a different defensive picture to the opposition over and over and in the latter stages of this match this allowed rotation of kickers so South Africa could not bring line speed pressure. Was he perfect, no, but for a guy getting his first start of the year, in that cauldron, it was about as good as it gets.
The cool calm head that he brings settles all around him. Let’s note the courage it takes to hold the ball for that extra second and let the defence overcommit before isolating defenders with the pass.
What would New Zealand have given for that kind of match control in the Ireland series? Worth noting that New Zealand get the full benefit of that Aaron Smith best in class pass with a first five-eighth who varies his depth constantly, while Smith also did a great job using the short step to keep the South African forwards from sliding early.
As critical a selection was Shannon Frizell at blindside. All of a sudden Sam Cane isn’t doing the hard yards on his own, we have a man prepared to put his hand up to do the hard carries off his own line, big front-on tackles, hard at the break down and one really important line out steal, but over and above all else, he was the big, physical, never take a backward step presence this side has been missing.
At long last New Zealand had a trio that looked somewhat balanced, never more so demonstrated than in the 54th minute.
The All Blacks stalled another South Africa lineout maul close to the line and forced them to go wide, Sam Cane belted Handre Pollard behind the line, Shannon Frizell fired himself into the next contact (doing some damage to himself in the process) and Ardie Savea picked off the turnover at the next ruck.
That, boys and girls, is what good looks like when it comes to loose forward trios playing together, and New Zealand have been missing it for a year. Critical moment and all three playing big roles in turning the Bokke away.
Foster should get the credit for finally making the big selections calls in other areas too, but the fact that it was last roll of the dice time, away on the high veldt with a team he had taken to fifth in the world rankings would surely have had NZR brains trust thinking more widely than just this match.
In that All Black side, by Foster’s selections in the last year, were the fifth-choice loosehead, the third-choice hooker, fourth and fifth-choice tightheads, and his fifth-choice blindside.
They did themselves and the country proud, and a whole lot of those South African forwards looked well uncomfortable with young men opposite them prepared to have a real go, but it took way too long to give them a deserved shot in the major roles.
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How much credit can really go to the head coach for that all-round massive improvement from the forward pack when the Crusaders (read, Scott Robertson’s) forward coach comes in and gets the focus on the key elements of the game correct and simply cuts down the areas for the opposition to attack?
For the record, I thought Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock put in a great shift for this game and were a big part getting past a South African pack, which, it should be said, really struggles with a bit of pace against them and a changing point of attack.
Finally, whoever runs catching practice should not be buying the beers for a week, but for me the biggest improvement was the positional play of both Will Jordan and Jordie Barrett. It was really poor last week, and was exploited by the South African kicking game, but this week the All Blacks had guys in the right place at the right time, and returned the kicks with a far better effort of their own.
This was quite the game to have as ones final hurrah ,should it be so for coach Foster, but so many of the things that contributed to a great win, both selections and game plan, simply demonstrated how poor he has been in both of these areas over the last two seasons.
This match showed that the recent reported death of the All Blacks has been greatly exaggerated, and in essence simply served to prove what can be done with a better approach from the coaching box. Therefore, Foster’s tenure remains seriously at risk.
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