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The bomb squad detonated early after Richie Mo'unga ran the Boks off Ellis Park

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

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Will Jordan’s pass sailed into touch over the head of Caleb Clarke from the first attacking scrum but the signs were there early on that the All Blacks had come to Ellis Park to free the shackles, particularly from new starting No 10 Richie Mo’unga.

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There were flashes in his cameo in Mbombela that indicated he had found calmness within the All Blacks squad as he played with carefree confidence and he brought that game to Ellis Park.

The Crusaders first five-eighth had the most assured test match of his career, delivering on his promise with a starring performance at Ellis Park nailing all but one of his kicks at goal, managing territory well and playing with daring enterprise out of his own 22 to take it to the Springboks.

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He has done it all with the Crusaders, but Mo’unga has been searching for a game like this in the black jersey against a top tier opponent.

There was the World Cup pool game against South Africa in 2019, but this was Mo’unga’s finest, and given the circumstances, will be all the more satisfying.

He brought pace onto the ball with his first two touches while probing and never took a step back from that point on.

It nearly went pear-shaped when he was intercepted by Pieter-Steph du Toit, but that didn’t shake him off his natural game, bouncing back to throw a double-pump cutout pass to Caleb Clarke over the top of the rush defence.

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Given the All Blacks issues protecting the ball at the breakdown last week, Mo’unga was quick to put boot to ball at times early on second phase to manage territory and keep his side in good areas of the field.

It was in the 20th minute where Mo’unga stamped his authority on defence when he put a huge shot on opposite Handre Pollard, sending his rival No 10 to his backside which forced his pass to the deck. Richie Mo the turnstile target was no more.

He brought vision and a brazen, cavalier attitude that took advantage of opportunities others don’t usually see.

He ripped a wide cutout pass inside his 22 metre zone on what was supposed to be a standard two-phase exit clearance that ended up a huge breakaway.

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Even with messy ball at the ruck, Mo’unga whipped one wide across his goal posts to centre Rieko Ioane who combined brilliantly with winger Will Jordan down the right side. He was there on the next phase to play a flat short ball to Havili and took a monstrous hit from prop Ox Nche in the process.

That confident play led to three points and soon after the All Blacks scored after breaking out from their 22 again, this time through Caleb Clarke busting up the middle.

After a Whitelock turnover he hammered a long range kick into an empty Springbok backfield with the ball stopping a metre from their goal line. It was turning into Mo’unga’s afternoon.

The fast pace and high tempo that the All Blacks were playing with gassed the Springboks just thirty minutes into the game, forcing them to pull all the front rowers from the pitch before halftime.

It was the home side that seemed to struggle with the altitude the most. With the top Springboks based in Europe and Japan, they haven’t exactly been playing with it often.

How many times have most of these Bok players actually played at Ellis Park-level altitude recently? Once or twice in the last three or four years?

The Springbok coaches will be most disappointed that the altitude backfired and highlighted inferior conditioning to the All Blacks given they pride themselves on how far their defence has come.

The conditioning was telling in the lead-up to Samisoni Taukei’aho barging over with Mo’unga’s conversion extending the lead to 15-0.

The Boks closed the gap to just two points before Jasper Wiese gave away a freebie and Mo’unga obliged again, calmly slotting a long one.

On the very next restart he was pressured and tried to dance around before being trapped and turned by Malcolm Marx, allowing the Springboks to strike straight back through Makazole Mapimpi and erase the big lead almost instantly.

The game fell apart for the All Blacks in that third quarter, but Mo’unga’s persistence with launching deep counter-attacks paid off again after a Will Jordan quick tap.

He put away Ioane again for another long break down the left hand touch and the All Blacks strung together seven phases to score another try through Havili that started way back inside their 22-metre zone.

The Springboks were run off their feet by the All Blacks running it from deep, a tactic commonly found at the Crusaders that Mo’unga is used to running.

That bold exit strategy paid off handsomely as they finally targetted the edges where South Africa have leaked breaks the most.

It was a masterstroke tactical move as the ‘bomb squad’ turned into the blob squad as the Boks’ big men were reduced to being puffed out from all the scramble defence.

In the process of pulling off the great escape the All Blacks just might have detonated South Africa’s hopes of the elusive, full-sized Rugby Championship title rather than the bite-sized one from 2019.

The Freedom Cup was right there for the taking with a 2-0 sweep over the out-of-sorts All Blacks begging, instead they dropped a game at home and now hit the road to travel to Australia to play the Wallabies where they historically have struggled.

Rennie’s side will be missing two instrumental players in Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi, so the Boks should be confident of avoiding the broom treatment for the second year running, but they almost now need to get two wins on the road.

Argentina’s big win also throws some interest into the Championship, with Los Pumas proving that this year they will be a different opponent. They could tip over either of New Zealand or South Africa yet.

The Springboks were confident of proving over these two matches that they were still the top dog, with noise from their assistant coach implying this series was a battle between two teams vying for the number one ranking.

Most New Zealanders are under no illusions that this was essentially a battle for third and fourth with the rise of France and Ireland, but the Springboks seem to be stuck staring at the sun for too long.

That’s now seven losses in 17 tests as world champions against tier one opponents for a return of 58 per cent.

South Africa are once again at 60 per cent on the year with three wins from five home tests before they have hit the road.

And they are yet to play France or Ireland to gauge where they really stand.

The All Blacks are not the best team in the world right now, but showed they still have flair, flow and the daring to play an expansive game instead of the destitute, crash-heavy borefest that they were falling into.

There were many starring performance out there from Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan, Sam Whitelock and Ardie Savea but Richie Mo’unga deserves plenty of praise for that win and Ian Foster too, for making a strategic change to pants the Boks at Ellis Park.

It was a much-needed win to get back the side back on track in The Rugby Championship and put the Irish series firmly behind them.

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