South Africa 18-5 New Zealand, Port Elizabeth, August 20
Back in the game
August 20, 2011
New Zealand's Colin Slade reflects on his performance © Getty Images
The Boks are back. Victory over New Zealand in Port Elizabeth reminded everyone who thought that South Africa were about to mount a relatively feeble defence of their Rugby World Cup crown that they remain a major force in world rugby.
In front of a vociferous Nelson Mandela Stadium crowd, Peter de Villiers' side rediscovered their form and perhaps more importantly the desire that will be needed to propel them deep into next month's World Cup. And just in time too.
This may not have been a case of win-or-bust for the Boks, but as this was their last outing before they head to New Zealand and with their crucial opening clash with Wales a little over three weeks away, it was as good as. Defeat against an under strength All Blacks side would have left them dangerously short of momentum and confidence and in danger of imploding before they had even boarded the plane.
But now, thanks to this win, next week's squad announcement will not be the subdued affair it could have been and instead will be embraced with renewed optimism. The man most likely to shoulder that expectation is flanker Heinrich Brussow but on this evidence you sense he can handle it. The 25-year-old only returned to Test match rugby last weekend after a lengthy injury lay-off but has wasted no time in reasserting his reputation as arguably the finest openside in the world.
His all-action performance, including some trademark pilfering at the breakdown, was at the heart of the Springboks' victory and will not be lost on their World Cup rivals. Bloodied and bruised, his exceptional work-rate helped set the tone for the rest of his side and he can now boast four victories in his four encounters with the All Blacks.
As impressive as Brussow' contribution was, he must share the praise with some other key personnel. Stand-in captain Victor Matfield and fellow lock Bakkies Botha relished the intensity of the occasion and the chance to bully their old rivals as part of a dominant pack anchored by hooker Bismarck du Plessis. The latter made way for regular skipper John Smit on the hour mark but on this latest evidence you wonder how long the Springbok management can carry on with that charade. The back division played their part too in a notable rearguard action with the likes of Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie and Francois Hougaard playing their part in hunting down an All Blacks determined to stick to their own expansive game.
While this game provided a few answers for Springboks coach Peter de Villiers, his Kiwi counterpart Graham Henry will have no doubt been a little concerned by his side's failure to convert their first half opportunities. The decision to leave the likes of flanker and captain Richie McCaw, fly-half Dan Carter and centre Conrad Smith made sense with the World Cup around the corner and the destiny of the Tri-Nations resting on their final clash with Australia but Henry and co would have been hoping for more positives from this new-look line-up.
Israel Dagg's game-breaking ability, Sonny Bill Williams' deft touches, Isaia Toeava's pace and Richard Kahui's strength were worthy of note which makes the All Blacks' one-try return all the more alarming. However, the biggest worry will be Colin Slade's shortcomings in what was only his second Test start. He is the chosen deputy to Carter and will be charged with steering the All Blacks' World Cup challenge should the worst happen to their first-choice No.10 but he is clearly some way from filling those sizeable boots. While his contribution with ball in hand hinted at a welcome confidence, his goal-kicking left a lot to be desired and had he boasted the usual precision of Carter this game could have easily turned out differently.
The game could also have turned on questionable bit of teamwork from the officials. New Zealand appeared to have clawed their way back into the contest in the early stages of the second half when a great burst from Dagg resulted in scrum-half Jimmy Cowan crossing the whitewash. Apparently unsure of the grounding, referee George Clancy went to his Television Match Official, South African Johan Meuwesen who informed him there was no issue.
But crucially, Meuwesen then broke with protocol and asked Clancy if he would, "like more information before the goal line?". This unprecedented offer was accepted by Clancy and Meuwesen then told him that Dagg's scoring pass to Cowan was forward and as a result the referee disallowed the score.
There was little complaint from the players and the pass was indeed forward but the officials got it wrong. The Laws of the game state that the TMO can only be called upon to clarify rulings on grounding in-goal and where there is a suspicion that the player may have been in touch in the act of scoring. In addition, they can rule on suspected foul play in-goal but they cannot offer input on play leading up to a score, no matter how blatant.
There is a danger that this latest blunder from officials, that follows two other high profile mistakes during the Six Nations and the Aviva Premiership, may overshadow the Springboks' return to form. Clancy, who is due to take charge of the opening game of the World Cup between New Zealand and Tonga, can expect a call from IRB referees chief Paddy O'Brien while Meuwesen will also surely be asked to explain himself. There may have been an IRB directive issued on the matter that we are not aware of, but given the importance of such a change it would not have passed unnoticed.
The 'right' decision was made but the IRB must amend their regulations to allow technology to be used to benefit the game. TMOs must be allowed to flag up such incidents to the referee without prompting. This latest error may not have been as painful as the farce that played out at the Millennium Stadium in March, but it still does the IRB no favours. It is probably too late to introduce any significant change before the World Cup so we must hope the sport's showpiece event escapes further controversy. Watch this space.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.