Rugby World Cup 1999
South Africa claim unsatisfying bronze
November 4, 1999
Joost van der Westhuizen slautes the crowd after an insipid game with New Zealand
© Getty Images
How are the mighty fallen? Well not too far by most people's standards but given the pride, or should that be hubris, of New Zealand and South Africa rugby folk, the real answer is a lot further than either side is comfortable with. The 1995 finalists competed this evening for the honour of being the third-best rugby team in the world. Bronze medal was not quite what either had in mind when they arrived but since the alternative is fourth place, and even greater opprobrium awaiting their return home, then the game suddenly looked vital for the psychological welfare of both sides.
South Africa eventually won the first ever game between these two sides to be held on neutral ground but it was not a particularly uplifting spectacle. Compared to the 1995 nail-biter between the same two sides this was desperately disappointing fare. It totally lacked the passion that these two greatest of rugby nations normally generate. As it was they would be hard pressed to generate enough spark to light a bulb.
Both sides looked fraught with nerves in the early stages which led to a host of handling errors from both sides. At least Christian Cullen enjoyed one elusive run amidst the early kicking game. Andrew Mehrtens opened the scoring with a tenth-minute penalty which was immediately countered by a Percy Montgomery drop goal, via the crossbar, which followed a loose clearance from the recalled Justin Marshall.
With unforced errors dominating the game neither side could establish a points advantage although South Africa enjoyed the territorial advantage. Two more penalties from Henry Honiball and Mehrtens, the latter still looking a pale imitation of the real thing, had sailed over before Breyton Paulse's determination won South Africa the first try. Josh Kronfeld, of all people, lost the ball and the speedy Springbok winger chipped the first line of black shirts before hacking his way to the opposition line. Christian Cullen got there before him but miserably failed to control the bobbling ball. Honiball's conversion gave South Africa a seven-point advantage.
The game had not yet come to life although the last ten minutes of the first half did see one move of note from the Kiwis when Reuben Thorne might have been better advised to feed the lurking Lomu than hold on. Two penalties to Mehrtens and one more to Honiball in the final ten minutes, meant that South Africa left the field at halftime with a slim four-point lead. Indeed such was the poor quality of this match that neither side really deserved any advantage. At times it appeared as though most of the players had signed a non-aggression pact but the odd individual hadn't been told the secret; Kees Meeuws was one honourable exception.
Both fly-halves had missed tricky penalties shortly after the break before both struck home from dead in front of the posts. Kronfeld was the New Zealand culprit and the flanker was having a thoroughly miserable evening as referee Marshall had clearly done some homework on the offside laws and was determined to showcase his knowledge. The All Blacks did win a five-metre scum but they might have well been up against a Chieftan tank for all the impression they made on the Springboks' front row.
The All Blacks were attempting to bring their own tank into the fray but Jonah Lomu was never given the time or space he needs to work up a head of steam. Meanwhile Cullen swapped places with fullback Jeff Wilson and subsequently managed to spring Lomu, only for the big man to be brought down by Stefan Terblanche's tap tackle. A rare moment of fluid error-free rugby brought New Zealand to within one point of the South African score. Mehrtens again converted the penalty after his skipper Taine Randell had instigated a breakout from the twenty-two. The match was there for the taking with just twelve minutes on the clock. It was South Africa who took it. Andre Venter made the hard yards in one of his typical charges and Percy Montgomery's second drop goal stretched the lead to four points with five to play. Every time New Zealand had the ball they either turned it over tamely to the opposition or dropped the thing. If there is a world record for unforced errors it was bettered here tonight.
The beleaguered All Black skipper Randell is one of the few who could walk tall after this match. His break in the final minutes could have lead to the vital Kiwi score but it was no surprise that his side conceded a penalty instead. It was only just that this match ended with one last error, this time from replacement Pita Alatini. The Springboks celebrated their win but deserved winners though they were, neither side involved in this game had much to boast about. John Hart has surely coached his last New Zealand side. That loss to France seems to have cut deeper into the All Black psyche than they care to admit. The old phrase about two bad sides having an off day sprang to mind, except these are two of rugby union's finest. In the extremely unlikely event of France and Australia giving us a repeat performance on Saturday there will be 72,500 spectators queuing for a refund.