Watching Steve Hansen’s All Blacks is a bit like watching a Gennady Golovkin fight – they’re the overwhelming favourite but you know there will be some opportunities for the opposition to land some shots. The opponent might even look like they have what it takes to topple them – but sooner or later and one way or another – they take your punches and keep moving forward.
They absorb attacks, they use the full width of the field to make metres, and through relentless pressure and supreme execution, they find and expose the cracks in your defence.
It’s nothing new to rugby fans; we’ve seen this all before. What do you say or write about a team that consistently finds ways to take the opposition’s best punch before shrugging it to the side and landing three, four or five haymakers of their own.
It seems at this stage that all the gameplanning and coaching in the world can’t stop a team that is just superior in every way shape and form.
Allister Coetzee has received a lot of criticism for his coaching since taking over from Heyneke Meyer earlier this year, and while the Springboks have underwhelmed more than once in Coetzee’s short time in charge, they came out at Kings Park in Durban on Saturday and had the perfect game plan.
Keep a strong line defensively, pressure the ball carrier as much as possible with great line speed, and work on attaining good field position so that you can try and win penalties in kickable positions.
South Africa did have some nice moments of play through Damian de Allende and Patrick Lambie but, for the most part, the Springboks really didn’t show a great deal of interest in trying to play rugby with the All Blacks. They reverted to the classic South African game plan of trying to make it as difficult as possible for the opposition to play, win the physical battle and rely on your goal kicking to be the difference.
Not a bad game plan when faced with the best passing team on the planet and it looked like it was going to be a masterstroke by Coetzee in the first 15 minutes when the Boks forced a number of uncharacteristic errors from New Zealand.
Morne Steyn was on target with his laser-like right boot and South Africa relentlessly pressurised New Zealand into mistakes.
Brodie Retallick and TJ Perenara both crossed for disallowed scores in the first half, and while there was a sense that it was only a matter of time before the All Blacks scores started counting, there was also a belief, an optimistic and in hindsight a misguided belief, that South Africa were going to stick with the All Blacks all the way through.
They might not have beaten New Zealand, but there was reasonable grounds that the Boks could be the first team all year to at least make it a contest heading into the final few minutes, especially given the fact that there was only three points between the two sides at half time.
An early second-half try to Israel Dagg and a fortunate Beauden Barrett try following an Anton Lienert-Brown charge down dispelled that theory, and a magnificent TJ Perenara score soon shattered it.
Perenara’s try on the hour mark ended the game as a contest but it also highlighted the unparalleled skill of this All Blacks side. The narrative with this All Blacks side is that they do the basics better than any other team in world rugby. They make the right pass, they exploit the space and they make effective use of their possession. You’ve seen a small army of pundits make this point but quite frankly it can kind of be insulting to the greatness of this team.
The basics are putting the ball through the hands, retaining your own ball at the ruck, winning your own line-out and scrums. They’re the basics.
Kieran Read bursting through a hole at full pace before finding Israel Dagg out of the corner of his eye as he’s going to the ground is not the basics of rugby – it’s an incredibly high level of skill from one of the world’s best players to another.
Dagg catches the ball with one hand at pace before making a basketball pass to Dane Coles who turns and sends Perenara over the line to complete a fluid series of incredibly difficult passes.
Beauden Barrett would add another try minutes later after a great offload by Liam Squire before Codie Taylor, Ben Smith and Squire all crossed to seal a record win for New Zealand against South Africa.
Forty five points in the second half and keeping the Boks to just six points after the break just further highlights the gulf in class between New Zealand and every other side in the world.
Like Golovkin, the All Blacks traded punches with their opponents to begin with, but when the championship rounds came, they delivered the knockout blow.. and then another one.. and then one more after that just to erase any and all doubt that this wasn’t already one of the greatest sides in rugby history.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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