All Blacks openside Ardie Savea has arguably had two of his best games in the black jersey when the side has lost, with his performance against the Springboks in the 31-29 loss his latest standout effort.
In the All Blacks 19-17 win, South Africa’s captain Siya Kolisi put in a world-class performance in a losing side. This week it was the reverse, with Savea matching Kolisi’s efforts on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
It seems that when his side is under the most pressure, he is the shining light able to counter back. He stands tall in the fight and carries his side through the toughest of passages.
In the Rugby World Cup semi-final loss where the New Zealand pack was put under the spotlight by England, Savea stood out for his ability to make big plays when his side needed it most in the second half.
He came up with a much-needed breakdown penalty to swing momentum that led to a try in that game, which was then scored by Savea, to keep his side in the game at 13-7.
Maybe it is just that when everything else isn’t going so well, the contrast is more noticeable between Savea and his teammates. If there is one man in the All Blacks pack who never seems to get dominated, it is Savea, who shows relentless resolve under pressure.
Right from the start against the Springboks, he was into his work.
On the second defensive set of the game from the line out, Akira Ioane held up Siya Kolisi, driving the Springbok captain sideways away from his support. The patient Savea lined up the ruck and pounced for his first turnover of the game.
The steal created by the loose forward pair was spoiled moments later as the All Blacks botched their response. As is standard with All Blacks counter-attacking policy, the ball was quickly moved to the edge and ended with a try to Damian de Allende after a dropped pass.
Risky play in the wrong zone? Perhaps, but you can’t have it both ways. When the policy leads to 60-70 metre All Black tries, no one is complaining.
The All Blacks need fetchers like Savea to produce key steals in the biggest games against the best opponents if they are to ever play their best counter-attacking rugby against top competition.
He enabled that first opportunity in the first five minutes against the Springboks.
After Willie le Roux dropped a kick-off, Savea found himself in possession of the ball. It was his offload in that early stage of that transition play that enabled the All Blacks to stick to that same policy – find the edge after opposition errors.
Within seconds, Beauden Barrett’s cross-kick hit Sevu Reece on the chest on the right edge and the winger scored in the corner, all without a phase being counted after Le Roux’s drop. The Springboks backfield was not organised in time – because the All Blacks didn’t give them the chance.
Searching for opportunities to poach the ball, Savea was ever-present around the breakdown. The threat posed by Savea was constantly a cause for concern, leading to desperate clean-outs that drew Springboks off their feet lunging toward the ruck.
Savea was hunting through the first half and as a result, didn’t get the chance to try to blunt the Springboks carry game as much as he would playing elsewhere in the back row.
On the rare occasion he did did find himself in the trenches in the first half, he was a disruptive force.
By stopping Ox Nche dead in his tracks, holding him up and then powering him backwards, the Springboks prop lost his supporting cleaners and hooker Bongi Mbonambi is forced to haul Savea off Nche by his neck, from the side, before the tackle is even complete.
Some days the call will come, some days it won’t, but as in life, what matters more is how you respond to the situation afterwards. Overall, the Springboks found better responses in the game.
However, the takeaway is the undeniable impact of Savea and what he does on defence for his side. His presence in close quarters continually creates potentially penalisable offences, with the opposition desperate to get rid of him. If he does it enough, they will pay the price one way or the other.
His power, strength, and leg drive made even the Springboks pack look very sloppy at times with their work around the breakdown, which any good fetcher does.
Savea’s explosive set-piece try was shaped in the beginning by the eventual try-scorer, running a good openside line from the lineout tail to keep Kolisi contained and stopping the Springboks captain from shoring up Pollard’s channel.
The Springboks flyhalf was done all ends-up by Barrett on the inside and Savea, like every good openside, was there at the end to take the last pass and break the last tackle from Eben Etzebeth.
The off-the-ball positioning of Savea to win space was critically important to giving Barrett the space to do his magic.
When Luke Jacobson was subbed with half an hour to go, Savea’s role changed as he took over at number 8.
He found himself making more tackles right in the midst of the Springboks onslaught during the third quarter where they enjoyed vast territorial and possession advantages.
His strength is such that he was able to hold up prop Steven Kitshoff and put him on his back only metres from the try line, forcing Kolisi to miss his first clean out and then come from the side to croc-roll Blackadder off the ball on the second attempt.
With the All Blacks hanging on, down five points at 25-20 with twenty minutes remaining, their captain came up with another game-swinging moment, winning a holding on penalty over the isolated Franco Mostert with the Springboks five metres from the line.
The pressure release from Savea’s second turnover was immense at the time, after nearly fifteen minutes of play camped in their own half with the All Blacks unable to arrest the momentum as the Springboks had scored multiple times.
And again down 25-23 with ten minutes to go, the strength of Savea in combination with Blackadder held Mostert up and forced a collapsed maul.
From the ensuing scrum, he broke down the blindside to free a two-on-one and was the man there to tackle De Allende on the Springboks’ five after Sevu Reece’s kick.
When his scrum was under pressure, Savea knew when to break quickly to avoid a costly penalty against the feed. There is always metres for Savea to make off the back when the opposition flankers are putting the shove on, such as his off-the-mark acceleration.
And with 10 seconds remaining as the All Blacks tried to wind down the clock and secure a win, Savea and Ioane set themselves up to secure the carry from Patrick Tuipulotu.
A great chop tackle from Jasper Wiese forced the All Blacks lock into the path of Savea, and he could not get a decent entry into ruck with Wiese obstructing the way on the floor.
It was a tactic the Springboks used all game to foil the All Blacks ruck, helping their own fetchers get over the ball. Not rolling away went unpunished by the ref so they continued doing it, as any side would do in that situation.
That botched play doesn’t erase the quality of the mammoth performance the All Blacks captain put in. His fifty minutes at openside was great as was his last thirty at the back of the scrum.
He was there again competing at the breakdown the phase before the All Blacks were penalised in front of the posts, trying valiantly to save his side from another grave situation and pull another turnover out of the hat.
His post-match comments as All Blacks captain were equally impressive and exactly what you would want to hear in the situation in defeat: nothing less than the deep disappointment of having missed out on six from six despite having already won the Rugby Championship. Overall, the performance against the Springboks was not being good enough and, in particular, the third quarter of the game was a major issue.
As a captain, Savea is learning fast and the difference between this week and last week was night and day, keeping communication lines open with the officials and getting the messages from them. In Townsville, there was almost no dialogue.
The decision-making part of the captaincy is where Savea uses his resources around him to make decisions. And that is a great quality to have, with all the experience the All Blacks have at their disposal he would be remiss not to use it.
They did roll the dice from a few penalties, turning down three at 20-25 for a shot at a five-metre line out. But after that failed, they decided to chip away, opting for points late in the game when the Springboks squeeze was heavy, recognising their launches weren’t working.
He leads by example and doesn’t wilt in the face of pressure, often delivering his best when the All Blacks need it most.
That has resulted in some of his best work going unrewarded by the end result, which is unfortunate, but shows that they have the right man on the field. Even with Sam Cane returning, Savea just has to be on there.
When the All Blacks desperately need someone to step up, you can be sure Ardie Savea will be there.