New Zealand 29-32 South Africa, Tri-Nations, September 12
Put away the sour grapes
September 12, 2009
Heinrich Brussow, Ryan Kankowski and John Smit celebrate the final whistle in Hamilton © Getty Images
The best team won. Plain and simple, the Springboks deserve their moment in the sun after seeing off the All Blacks for the third time this season to claim the Tri-Nations crown.
The shadow cast across world rugby by the Springboks is now ominous, with the Tri-Nations nestling in their trophy cabinet alongside the Webb Ellis Cup, IRB Sevens World Series title, a series win over the British & Irish Lions and a Super 14 title for the Pretoria-based Bulls.
Their strategy, based on bruising physicality and a water-tight kicking game, has failed to win fans in Australia and New Zealand. The fact that, with one game still to go, they're the only side to have registered a try-bonus point will likely be overlooked as the latest portion of sour grapes is dished up.
It's a shame that their achievements have been blighted by griping about style as their high-pressure game is ferociously precise and represents some excellent achievements in terms of discipline and attention to the fundamentals of the game.
Australia's young guns played a superb running game to inflict the only defeat on the Boks in the Tri-Nations in Brisbane last weekend, luring them out of their conservative comfort zone in fine style. The mistake was not repeated in Hamilton as, after a rousing All Black haka, the visitors settled straight in to their natural style, dominating the lineout and using the exemplary kicking arsenal of scrum-half Fourie Du Preez and his halfback partner Morne Steyn.
Du Preez has been masterly in his control and a finer kicking game from scrum-half is impossible to find currently. After enjoying a tussle with the in-form Mike Phillips neither Jimmy Cowan of the All Blacks or Luke Burgess of Australia have been able to better him, with only Will Genia's lightning delivery in Brisbane breaking his stride.
Next up for the Springboks is a trip north to face Grand Slam champions Ireland, France and Italy and they will do so with Steyn and openside Heinrich Brussow, the two success stories of the season, in tow. Their attentions will soon turn to retaining their Rugby World Cup in 2011 and questions will inevitably be raised over the ability of John Smit, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger et al to cut it in two years' time.
For the All Blacks the story is slightly different. Retaining the Bledisloe Cup is a success that they always treasure but their playing stocks are running dangerously low outside of their starting XV. Injuries to Conrad Smith and Luke McAlister have caused disarray in the backline.
Dan Carter, who eclipsed the Tri-Nations scoring record with his 19-point haul and passed 900 Test points, was lumped together with Stephen Donald as the All Blacks looked to replicate the Wallabies' dual-kicking midfield of Matt Giteau and Berrick Barnes. This experiment was seen in reverse in Hong Kong last year and won't likely be seen again after Donald struggled with the restricted space and extra defensive duties expected of him at No.12.
The Waikato man, like the rest of this All Black side, has plenty of courage but was stuck between the immaculate Carter and the mounting injury list. Isaia Toeava's break to set up Sitiveni Sivivatu's score showed that his extra pace and invention with ball in hand should perhaps have been rewarded with a start in the No.13 jersey, Ma'a Nonu remaining at 12.
Toeava has had a number of chances at this level and never really made the step up, however. The case is the same elsewhere. The second-row pairing of Brad Thorn and Isaac Ross is a stopgap, with either one, or both, likely to be shunted aside when Chris Jack and Ali Williams return. Rodney So'oialo may have played his last Tri-Nations, the warrior-like No.8 having failed to make an impact this season.
Respite may come from overseas with Carl Hayman, currently Newcastle skipper, and Harlequins fly-half Nick Evans potentially eyeing a World Cup berth.
Graham Henry and his coaching staff will head out on tour following next week's dead rubber with the Wallabies and their squad may have a different look. They will still be favourites in November Tests against England, France, Italy and Wales but are a shadow of the side that romped to a Tri-Nations title and Grand Slam tour last season.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.