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All Blacks clinch Rugby Championship with tense win over Springboks

By Alex McLeod

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The All Blacks have clinched the 2021 Rugby Championship title and reclaimed the Freedom Cup with a tense 19-17 victory over the Springboks in Townsville.

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Don’t be fooled by the scoreline, though. The All Blacks must consider themselves very fortunate to come away with a win after the conceded an array of errors through poor handling and lacklustre skill execution.

It didn’t seem as though the match was going to pan out that way after the opening three minutes when Will Jordan capped off a scintillating opening passage of play on the back of a weaving break made by All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor.

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The attacking intent of the All Blacks to keep the ball in play via quick lineouts appeared to be a deliberate ploy to counter South Africa’s high volume of kicking, and that game plan worked wonders when Jordan cross the chalk after just a matter of minutes.

However, the pace of the game for the remainder of the first half, and the game a a whole, was slowed significantly by a slew of errors and high penalty count from both teams.

The Springboks were guilty of numerous poor kicks made by their chief playmakers Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard, while New Zealand’s ill-discipline and uncharacteristically low level of skill execution was painfully evident to see.

The latter side’s shortcomings came to the fore just moments after Jordan’s try when fellow wing George Bridge coughed up a seemingly regulation high ball right by his own tryline, which allowed his opposite Sbu Nkosi to pounce and score.

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Those were the only two tries of the encounter, and that’s no surprise given the stop-start nature of the opening half due to the pedantic nature of referee Luke Pearce and the inaccuracies of the two teams.

Only the penalties traded by Pollard and Jordie Barrett, who was rock-solid under South Africa’s unrelenting high balls, added to the scoreline, which read 13-11 at half-time.

The Springboks were perhaps fortunate that their deficit wasn’t larger after Nkosi was sent to the sin bin towards the end of the first half for a deliberate knock-down, but New Zealand’s poor skill execution proved to be their own worst enemy when it came to trying to take advantage of the numerical mismatch.

The trend of aerial bombardment, nit-picky officiating, subpar attacking play and goal-kicking continued into the second half as Pollard and Barrett traded a further four penalties between them.

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Two of those came through Pollard’s boot, and many of those penalties stemmed from South Africa’s dominance in the collision zone, which contributed to the All Blacks’ inability sustain many meaningful attacks.

That should be a source of concern for All Blacks boss Ian Foster as his side were only able to breach the South African defensive line on a handful occasions.

Even then, a multitude of spillages thwarted their chances of scoring, and those errors, particularly in the first few phases of each wave of attack, prevented the Kiwis the chance to build continuity.

Adding to New Zealand’s woes was the way in which the Springboks imposed themselves physically up front as their forward pack outmuscled their opponents on many occasions.

Throw in their mixed bag at the set piece, and there will be plenty for Foster and his colleagues to address in their post-match review heading into next week’s re-match on the Gold Coast.

However, the All Blacks were saved from a shock defeat at the hands of the reigning world champions, who were reeling after successive losses to the Wallabies over the past fortnight, by substitute Quinn Tupaea.

The inexperienced midfielder came up trumps when he went searching for a turnover penalty at a Springboks breakdown with just three minutes left on the clock.

It was a vital piece of play from the four-test international, and Barrett stepped up to the plate to land the winning penalty from about 45 metres out.

That was Barrett’s crowning glory as he established himself as the best player in the match through his efforts to negate South Africa’s kicking game and faultless performance off the tee.

By contrast, there will be plenty for the Springboks to consider in their post-match mortem, with their physical prowess among the things that will be most pleasing for head coach Jacques Neinaber.

However, the extremely high number of flaws committed by the All Blacks should have been exploited by the Springboks, who failed to capitalise on the mountain of opportunities afforded to them by New Zealand’s misfortunes.

Even more concerning was their defiance to show any creativity with ball in hand, something of which they were so stubborn about that they continued to kick the ball away even when they were trailing in the last couple of minutes of the game.

That much is reflected in the match statistics, which show the Springboks doubled the number of kicks made by the All Blacks, while the Kiwis made more than double the number of passes than their South African counterparts.

It’s partly for that reason that, in spite of their error-ridden showing, the All Blacks have come out on top, and, in doing so, have won the Rugby Championship for the first time since 2018 and kept hold of the Freedom Cup for the 12th consecutive year.

All Blacks 19 (Try to Will Jordan; conversion and 4 penalties to Jordie Barrett)

Springboks 17 (Try to Sbu Nkosi; 4 penalties to Handre Pollard)

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All Blacks clinch Rugby Championship with tense win over Springboks

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