When the All Blacks broke into the Springboks 22 with time up on the clock, every rugby enthusiast tuned into Saturday’s match was holding their breath. The Springboks had thrown everything at the All Blacks throughout the game, scoring three tries in 13 minutes and at one point holding a 14-point lead, but the All Blacks had somehow, inexplicably, managed to claw back the score.
New Zealand supporters knew that even when their team had been behind on the scoreboard in recent years, they would inevitably fight back. At no point during the match would any New Zealanders have accepted that a loss was on the cards, even when behind by two tries.
South African fans, and most neutrals, could taste blood – but they could also taste the almost certain heartbreak that so many of the All Blacks’ opposition had felt in the past.
From the get-go, it looked like the All Blacks could be on track to rack up another record scoreline. Up by 12 points with less than a quarter gone in the match, Springbok supporters were flashing back to last year’s try-fest at North Harbour Stadium, where the All Blacks were a little slow off the mark but still ended up winning 57-0.
Somehow, the Springboks fought back. It has become increasingly obvious that to beat this current All Blacks team you simply can’t rely on kicking penalties. The All Blacks will score tries – there’s no way around it – increments of three are never going to be enough to trump the team that can score from anywhere on the park.
Whether it was the plan of attack right from the start, or whether the game just unfolded that way, the Springboks launched an assault on the All Blacks, the likes of which we haven’t seen for a long time. Even after having scored five tries, it was impossible to call the game’s victor until the final match whistle was blown – reinforcing just how potent Steve Hansen’s current team is.
The All Blacks are currently on track to smash the world record for number of tries scored against Tier 1 teams in a calendar year, currently sitting on an absolutely incredible 43 for 2018 – netting no fewer than four tries in any match to date.
In contrast, the South Africans were sitting on a 50% win record for the year before this weekend’s match and most punters were weighing up how many points the Springboks were going to lose by – not even considering that a win might be on the cards. Steve Hansen may have talked up the Springboks as favourites, but every man and his dog was picking another victory for the All Blacks – and a comfortable one at that.
Barring the odd hiccup in the last couple of years, the All Blacks have been an unstoppable force. It’s fantastic for the game to see one of their oldest foes, who are currently going through a bit of a rough patch, come out victorious in a match in New Zealand – and what a match we were all treated to.
It’s not a given that a high scoring, closely contested match is going to be good to watch – the Chiefs’ 72-65 win over the Lions a number of years ago is a testament to that. Too often we will see the scoreline tick over due to porous defences – an assertion often made regarding some of the better tries you’ll see in the lower levels of competition, but this was simply not the case on Saturday.
There were a few sticky moments, that’s not in question – Jordie Barrett’s horror quick throw-in probably the worst of the lot, but the majority of the tries on display were simply due to relentless attack and individual brilliance.
The first try of the match was the product of the All Blacks’ well-practised offloading and quick passing skills. The second try was in part due to the All Blacks exploiting the front rowers that South Africa had camped out on the wing – but let’s not forget that it was hooker Codie Taylor that had the audacity to throw a no-look pass into space in the lead up to the score.
The Springboks, too, showed a glimpse of the teams of yesteryear with their outside backs in scorching form and dotting down for all but one of their five tries (naturally, man-mountain Malcolm Marx scored the other).
When the powers-that-be are scouring matches come the end of the season to find the best tries of the year, you can bet that they’ll spend a fair amount of time trying to decide which of the weekend’s tries belongs near the top of the list.
Of course, the beauty of rugby is that it’s a game for all shapes and sizes – which is why it was a pleasure to see some well-set mauls resulting in tries for both teams. Whether you’re a fan of the razzle-dazzle or more of a purist, the match had something for everyone. When the whistle blew at halftime, not one fan at Westpac Stadium (nor sitting at home in the comfort of their living room) would have felt they hadn’t received their money’s worth.
Saturday’s result in no way indicates that the All Blacks are not comfortably the best team in the world – nor does it hide the fact that the Springboks have a number of issues that need fixing before the Rugby World Cup next year. It does, however, remind the world that the All Blacks are not unbeatable and that there is life in international rugby yet. This is what rugby is all about.
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