Monday Aug 23, 2010
So the All Blacks got out of jail? Behind for 77 minutes of a compelling test and smashed back by superior forces, they were dead lucky to turn the game on its head with two tries in the last three minutes. Weren't they?
Not in my book. This match wasn't won in front of 94,000 (initially) delirious South African fans who thought they had the old Kiwi skewered and on the braai midway through the second half when the Boks led 22-14.
No, this game was won last year in the Northern Hemisphere, and earlier this year when the Tri-Nations began. As someone once said, you triumphed the moment you decided to become someone.
In other words, when the All Blacks management decided that they were going to go for bust; that they were set on ending the ghastly aerial ping-pong that afflicted the game last year like some 15th century plague.
If you doubt the wisdom of this argument, ask yourself this. Why did the South African defence finally crack twice in the last three minutes to lose the test and also their Tri-Nations crown?
They cracked because they had spent the previous 20 minutes being softened up and exhausted by a side that insisted it kept the ball in hand, demanded it continued to attack through the hands rather than just resorting to aimless kicks when tired bodies (especially at altitude) and minds were screaming for some relief.
New Zealand won this thrilling test match because they persevered with their philosophy of attacking running, ball handling and continuing to ask questions of the defence. They moved the ball incessantly in those final 20 minutes, invigorated no end by the arrival of Piri Weepu shortly after halftime to replace the ineffective Jimmy Cowan.
Weepu lit the blue touch paper for his side. He probed, he stepped, he peered into the 'Boks defence to find a smidgeon of space and light. And in the end, through all his many darts, he found a way to unlock what we have to say was a wonderfully brave, committed and courageous South African defence.
But I don't buy the theory that the All Blacks just got lucky. They made their own fortune by their faith in the creed, that if they kept the ball alive and kept on probing and passing, they would eventually fracture the Springboks defence. And so it proved.
This was their reward for an attacking mindset and for their faith in the system. And they won despite being nowhere near as efficient and effective as they had been previously this winter.
The precision, control and execution wasn't there in Johannesburg because at last a side did something about the All Blacks' superiority at the breakdown. South Africa, chiefly through an extraordinary display of physicality that made you wince just watching from the sidelines, denied New Zealand that front foot platform off the breakdown that had been the key to their previous triumphs in this year's Tri-Nations.
Schalk Burger was immense, Juan Smith not far behind him. I thought it served the All Blacks handsomely when 'Boks coach Peter de Villiers withdrew Juan Smith with 22 minutes still to play. I wouldn't have done - for me, he was one of their most effective players. But I'm sure Peter de Villiers always knows best ...
Richie McCaw, it has to be said, again got away with blue murder under the nose of another so-called 'leading' world referee. How the New Zealand captain did not get yellow carded when he dived into the wrong side of a ruck a metre or two from the All Blacks line early in the second half after Dan Carter's kick had been half charged down and the South Africans were set to score had they been able to work the ball clear quickly, defied belief.
Nigel Owens saw it and did nothing, apart from lamely giving the penalty.
Referees the world over, it has become manifestly apparent, are too scared to get McCaw off the field. I wonder why.
For much of the game, New Zealand looked slower, more ponderous and prone to wrong decision making compared to their previous performances. They made many mistakes, chiefly because of the pressure the Springboks exerted.
And yet, when all was said and done, it was their faith in an attacking philosophy which prevailed and which got them home. It wasn't down to luck or inefficient defending - South Africa did all they humanly could to deny their greatest foe.
It wasn't enough because New Zealand continued to hold the ball, not to kick. If ever a philosophy were endorsed, it was here.
* Peter Bills is a rugby writer for Independent News & Media
By Peter Bills