Masters at weathering the storm: Why the Springboks' first-quarter domination wouldn't have fazed the All Blacks
On Saturday evening the All Blacks opened their World Cup campaign with a win against a team that many expect will make the grand final.
The Springboks may have faltered over the last decade but head coach Rassie Erasmus has helped restore some shine to the once feared South African side.
They’re certainly a side that’s given New Zealand plenty of grief over the last year and a half.
In 2018, the Springboks did the unthinkable and pipped the All Blacks in their own back yard. The return fixture in South Africa could have also fallen the way of the Boks were it not for a roaring final quarter that saw New Zealand score three exceptional tries.
Earlier this year, come the 80th minute of the two nations’ sole face-off, there were no points separating the teams and the game in Wellington ended in a draw.
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Three matches over two years ended with a net-zero points difference, which is why so many expected another close encounter in Yokohama earlier this week.
Springboks scrumhalf Faf de Klerk was quick to acknowledge that the two nations are neck-and-neck at the moment.
“I think it’s going to be 50-50,” de Klerk said.
“It’s going to come down to a lucky moment or a referee call.”
Every expectation was that the match was going to be a close-knit affair, but it was the Springboks who looked to have the early ascendancy.
For the first 20 minutes of the fixture, the All Blacks managed just 45% possession. Even when they had the ball, however, they found no chinks in the Springboks’ defensive line and were, more often than not, losing ground on their own carriers.
In fact, in those first 20 minutes, New Zealand were on the attack in South Africa’s half for just 53 seconds.
Remarkably, the All Blacks only gave up three points – courtesy of a long-range penalty goal to Handre Pollard.
Whilst many would have seen the first quarter of the game as an ominous sign of things to come for the men in black, New Zealand aren’t a team that tends to do a lot of damage early on in games.
In fact, the All Blacks’ average advantage after 20 minutes of playtime in matches has been less than three points since the beginning of 2018.
Take out games against tier-2 sides Tonga and Japan and that advantage drops to just over a point. Further omit Argentina and Italy and the All Blacks are barely breaking even after a quarter of gameplay.
Despite that, the All Blacks have finished their fixtures with average margins of 20 points, 16 points and 13 points against all teams, tier-1 teams and top opposition, respectively.
Slow starters or fast finishers?
Some will say that the New Zealand side are slow starters and take a bit of time to really get into their work.
Others will argue that the massive jump in margins from quarter to quarter are more down to the opposition falling away throughout the game.
There’s certainly some truth to both trains of thought.
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The numbers dictate that while New Zealand tend to score considerably more points later in matches, they concede them evenly throughout. Opposition sides don’t struggle with getting over the line against New Zealand as the game wears on, but their defences certainly give way to the wave of black.
Given the above, the All Blacks’ victory over the Springboks shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone just because the South Africans had the upper hand in the first quarter.
It’s also why punters shouldn’t have been surprised at New Zealand’s comfortable 36-0 win over Australia in the second Bledisloe Cup match this year, despite the Wallabies earning a record win in Perth the week prior.
Red card subdues fight back
In the first test, Australia went into halftime with a 4-point advantage. That’s almost a 7-point turn-around from the margin New Zealand would typically start the second half with, but a deficit of that magnitude wouldn’t normally have worried Kieran Read’s men.
The All Blacks, of course, went on to lose that match – but also had to play the whole second half with just 14 men after Scott Barrett was rightly sent off for a dangerous tackle.
Despite outcry from New Zealand fans and the general discourse that the All Blacks were slowly stuttering towards a relatively early World Cup elimination, the coaches wouldn’t have been overly concerned.
The red card was fairly given as a major contributor for the loss, however some suggested that this was papering over the real issue. After all, New Zealand were already losing at halftime.
That ignores one of sports’ great truisms, however; games are not won or lost in the first half.
Yes, the All Blacks did look under the pump.
And yes, at halftime the Wallabies were performing better than their counterparts from across the Pacific.
But as the All Blacks have regularly shown over the last two years, and as they again showed on Saturday night, the world’s top-ranked rugby team do considerably more damage in the final two quarters of their games than in the two preceding.
Multiple methods of madness
By the end of the All Blacks’ opening World Cup match, they had still only managed to push their territory and possession stats up to 41% and 47%– but they’d also spent more time on attack in the Springboks’ half.
More tellingly, they also found chinks in the Springboks’ armour.
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Whilst it’s generally beneficial to be making ground with every carry, the All Blacks showed that you can keep battering away at a defensive line, be monstered backwards each time, and still score some ripping tries.
All sides benefit from a territory advantage, but New Zealand are the best team at scoring tries even when they’re primarily camped out in their own half.
In recent years, the British and Irish Lions, South Africa, England, and Ireland have all managed to subdue New Zealand’s hit-ups.
The Springboks did it again over the weekend – but the All Blacks still managed to capitalise thanks to stretching their opponent’s defences across the width of the field and also thanks to some x-factor plays by their many talented individuals.
There are still some issues with the All Blacks’ attack, but Saturday night showed that it will take more than just dogged defence to keep the men in black from scoring tries.
The Springboks’ line held secure for a quarter of the match, but come the final whistle the All Blacks had managed to do what they always do best: slowly build into the game, force the opposition into making mistakes and then ruthlessly capitalise.
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