South Africa 22-29 New Zealand, Tri-Nations, Johannesburg, August 21
Gritty All Blacks are worthy champions
August 21, 2010
Israel Dagg soaks up his winning moment © Getty Images
After a thrilling victory over South Africa in Soweto, New Zealand can reflect on another entry in the list of classic Test matches while cradling Tri-Nations title number 10 lovingly in their arms.
Following the humiliation of losing three times to the Springboks in 2009 the All Blacks secured the ultimate revenge at FNB Stadium by whitewashing their perennial rivals, serving up a heartbreaking conclusion to game in which their hosts had shown bags of grit, determination and pride.
Prior to kick-off, the stars appeared to be aligned for the Springboks to atone for their earlier tour sins. There was a record attendance at the stunning stadium, their inspirational skipper John Smit was to win his 100th Test cap and talk of revenge against the All Blacks after two tournament hammerings hung heavy in the air.
For 77 minutes the game adhered to the plan - the Springboks finally found the heart to face up to Graham Henry's men and their defensive efforts were a vast improvement on the lacklustre showings of recent weeks. The ending, as befits all great cliffhangers, came from nowhere and underlined the quality possessed by this All Black side.
The winning tries scored by Richie McCaw and Israel Dagg were the worst kind of suckerpunches, timed to leave their opponents with nothing to do but despair. With their crown stolen from them in front of almost 95,000 adoring fans the Boks could be staring into the abyss. They can of course rescue something from their season with a good showing in their Grand Slam tour attempt in November, but it's fairly plain that 2010 will belong to the All Blacks.
McCaw continues to operate at a level above his competitors and shows no sign of slowing down as he eyes a certain gold trophy and a ton of Test caps. His play in the loose has been a conspicuous improvement so far this season and had it not been for a stunning return by Cheetahs skipper Juan Smith on the South African blindside, his spectre would have loomed even larger at the final whistle.
The Springboks were last season a well-oiled machine, driven on by the quality of scrum-half Fourie du Preez's kicking game and boasting a merciless strike rate from their backline. In this game, their best performance of this year's Tri-Nations, they finally showed some resolve, but their efforts did not possess the same precision. Their defence was hard and at times brilliant, but nevertheless appeared to be frenzied and driven by emotion rather than confidence.
Coach Peter De Villiers has his share of critics and has overseen a dire tournament, from the on-field results to his latest disciplinary spat with SANZAR. His post-match press conference spoke volumes of the current state of the camp and morale-boosting wins over Australia in the coming weeks are very much required. "I just came back from a funeral now back there in the dressing room. That's how hard the guys take it," he said. "But we really made a hell of a step up from our Australasia tour. The one thing we all are now aware of is that as winning becomes a habit, so does losing.
The All Blacks, by comparison, showed admirable mental strength to claw back the deficit, albeit with a little help from the officials. While Nigel Owens produced a largely error-free performance he missed a vital forward pass in the build-up to McCaw's try, and on these margins games are sometimes decided.
Their stroke of luck aside, Henry will have been thrilled by his charges' refusal to accept the easy way out and settle for a narrow loss or a draw. Few players in world sport boast the killer instinct shown in McCaw's late turnover to sett Dagg away. Fans and commentators alike have trotted out a lazy 'they'll choke at the World Cup' in recent weeks but results such as this one, and crucially the manner of the victory, will build steel among the younger players.
Dagg offers outrageous quality and may soon oust Joe Rokocoko from a wing berth while Aaron Cruden could be allowed his chance to lead the line against Australia in Sydney on September 11. The All Blacks have been comfortably the best side in this season's tournament, as South Africa were last season, and can rightly look upon next year's World Cup with a growing air of confidence. The ball it appears is in their court.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.