Test matches swing on subtle moments and scorelines can be skewed quickly, but South Africa’s 16-point margin of victory over New Zealand on Saturday did not flatter the hosts in Mbombela.
Indeed, it was surprising that the All Blacks reached half-time at just 10-3 down. They were a distant second best to the Springboks and, with a visit to Johannesburg next up, they are in serious strife. Here are five lessons from the 26-10 defeat.
New Zealand’s attack is in a rut
We appear to have reached a previously unthinkable juncture in rugby union history. It now appears to be a sound opposition strategy to hand possession to New Zealand.
There are caveats, of course. Precise kicking and energetic, robust defence must underpin this approach. But the All Blacks look cripplingly inaccurate and uncertain in their phase-play.
Previously, their athleticism would be complemented by cohesion. Recently, it appears as though individual brilliance is their sole means of breaking down opponents.
This weekend corroborated concerning evidence from the second two Tests against Ireland. Beauden Barrett ignited a dazzling counter from deep inside his own 22. Later in the first half, another foray was punctuated by a charge from Samisoni Taukei’aho before Malcolm Marx pounced.
Later, directly from a line-out, Ardie Savea fed Will Jordan with an inside ball and Jasper Wiese’s tap-tackle stopped a slicing break. Then, at the death with South Africa reduced to 14, Caleb Clarke’s brilliant run set up a consolation try for Shannon Frizzel.
Those fleeting instances aside, it is difficult to remember many other threatening periods of play from New Zealand. They thrashed around and threw frantic passes, yet were engulfed time and again by a green and gold tide.
Following the exit of Brad Mooar, the All Blacks’ former attack coach, Ian Foster assumed responsibility for the attack. In the era of Steve Hansen, he conducted some slick stuff. But as this crop voyage to Ellis Park for the second instalment of a double-header against South Africa, they look all at sea, committing basic errors and devoid of an overarching plan.
Marx spearheads phenomenal pack
Many a true word is spoken in jest and South Africa’s claims to the best two front rows in any given match – their starting trio and whichever three are among the Bomb Squad – are usually pretty valid.
Before this meeting with the All Blacks, Bongi Mbonambi had become Jacques Nienaber’s go-to starter. Marx had become a specialist replacement, with his breakdown-spoiling such an effective weapon to unleash for the second half of games.
Faced with rivals fumbling for fluency, Nienaber opted to promote Marx and was rewarded handsomely. New Zealand ended up surrendering seven of 74 rucks according to Opta’s first count.
Marx was in the thick of South Africa’s spoiling, swooping to earn a number of penalties from Angus Gardner. Backed up by Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, he fronted a scrum that overwhelmed the All Blacks. South Africa’s line-out maul grew in influence as well.
The Springboks began the game with Trevor Nyakane, Marx, Frans Malherbe, Etzebeth, De Jager, Siya Kolisi, Pieter Steph du Toit and Jasper Wiese.
They ended a comprehensive win with Steven Kitshoff, Mbonambi, Vincent Koch, Salmaan Moerat, Franco Mostert, Kolisi, Kwagga Smith and Wiese on the field. Thanks to a six-two bench, those are two imposing packs.
Arendse proves able Kolbe deputy
It should first be stressed that Kurt-Lee Arendse absolutely deserved his late red card for a reckless chase that up-ended an airborne Beauden Barrett and sent New Zealand’s fly-half crashing to earth. The latter could have suffered a serious spinal injury.
The incident was more jarring for how assured Arendse had been up until that rush of blood. In just his second Test appearance, following an introduction against Wales last month, the diminutive 26-year-old – Cheslin Kolbe’s sparky stand-in – emerged with his reputation enhanced.
He posed problems for New Zealand down his right wing even before a well-taken try in the eighth minute and defended wholeheartedly opposite the explosive Clarke, hitting low and pumping his legs.
Kolbe is such a bright and distinctive talent that finding a like-for-like replacement might seem impossible. South Africa have found one, even if Arendse is likely to be banned for the return leg.
Am’s star keeps rising
The positives for South Africa were plentiful. Jaden Hendrikse arrived with just 43 seconds on the clock and produced a strong display at scrum-half. Wiese’s effort was probably his most convincing at Test level thus far and Damian Willemse is settling into the full-back role.
Lukhanyo Am, though, has a gift for making the extraordinary look easy. His diving, twisting offload for Arendse’s try was a beautiful piece of skill and when South Africa’s defence is suffocating teams, Am is going well.
He rubber-stamped another all-round game with a breakdown turnover and an interception in the second half. There are few, if any, better centres on the planet at the moment.
South Africa have room to improve
A well-worn template served South Africa well. They kicked 30 times to New Zealand’s 16, by Opta’s initial count, ruling the skies and ratcheting up the pressure with furious line-speed and breakdown aggression.
In truth, they could have piled on more misery for the All Blacks. The attack leading to Savea’s jackal turnover midway through the first half featured some unimaginative and predictable phase-play from the Springboks. Gardner could have rewarded New Zealand at both of the rucks before he did blow the whistle.
South Africa could have been sharper in transition as well. Damian de Allende bobbled a grubber into touch with New Zealand stretched and Willemse will grow into the second-distributor responsibilities that Willie Le Roux has made his own.
Step it up again in Johannesburg and the Springboks can send a demoralised New Zealand to new depths.