OPINION: The All Blacks were losing the territory. The All Blacks were losing the lineout. The All Blacks were losing the collisions. The All Blacks were losing the scrums, even if the ref didn’t quite agree. This match could have revisited the losing carnage of Perth, but the brilliance of the backline turned every rugby truism on its head.
Don’t tell Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett that forwards win rugby matches. Nothing is a lost cause to these two. In a moment of genius they can turn a hopeless situation, even a hopeless match, into a beautiful victory.
If these All Blacks do go on and win the World Cup, then they will have to achieve it in a way that no team has ever managed before. New Zealand will have to do it with a pack that is a level below the very best sets of forwards in world rugby.
South Africa and England certainly have better packs and a few other teams will also fancy their chances. But even when you beat the All Blacks up, you don’t always beat them. They have the ability to score tries that other teams cannot even dream of.
It is rare, almost unheard of, to win a World Cup playing ‘the beautiful game.’ The 1970 Brazilian side did it at football. That magical team had Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao and Rivelino. They were all number 10’s at their own clubs. So when they came together for Brazil everything was possible.
New Zealand are also blessed with magical 10s so maybe they can win this World Cup in a style that no country has previously managed throughout. There is the same beauty in this New Zealand team as in those 1970 Brazilians where pace and touch and vision surpass all other virtues.
Coach Steve Hansen knows they no longer have a pack to rough up the big guys. That is even more obvious in the absence of Brodie Retallick, despite the roving excellence of Scott Barrett against the Springboks. So Hansen is trying to outflank the opposition. He is trying to play numbers down the short side and back his players’ hands. If the opposition wing does come up to bolster the defensive numbers, then there is space in behind,
And when the short side gets stacked, that then creates space in the midfield for Beauden Barrett to hit with that dazzling pace coming from deep. The humidity of Japan should further help the All Blacks. They want to run the legs out of the opposition.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen gets RWC media giggling with a blunt analysis of the win over the Boks.
But New Zealand will have to create history. No side has ever won a World Cup playing this way. I hope they succeed, because there is a joy about what they are trying to do. It is way more thrilling than the smash mouth football of Eddie Jones’ England, the dull territory game of South Africa and Ireland, or the defensive squeeze of Wales.
The All Blacks will not get a free pass, however. They must achieve at least parity in the aerial contest. New Zealand struggled to grab back any high balls early on against South Africa. George Bridge, Mo’unga and Anton Lienert-Brown were all beaten in the air.
Then the game changed. To his great credit Bridge did not panic. And when he began to win back possession for his teammates, the All Blacks were able to launch. It was Bridge’s ability to beat Duane Vermeulen in the air that led to New Zealand’s opening try.
And we are in for a treat if a more beautiful try is scored in the tournament. Aaron Smith’s long deep pass to Mo’unga was superb. When Mo’unga looked outside the pass was blocked, but Sevu Reece was waving on the wing.
The cross kick found him and Reece was away, linking with Smith on the inside and then on to Ardie Savea who inevitably broke a tackle. Smith was then part of the clean-out, so Ryan Crotty provided the perfect link pass to Mo’unga who put the extra pace on his pass to give Barrett that extra split second of time to make the breach.
The move was an exquisite combination of passing skill and the ability to exploit the space. I am quite certain that no other team in the tournament would have been remotely capable of scoring it. In Japan they would be right to call it a try from the end of the earth.
But it was all made possible by Bridge’s aerial victory. In 2011 New Zealand were able to dominate their semi against Australia in part because of the aerial skill of their wings. They will need the same accuracy in Japan.
The Scott Barrett try that followed was messier, but again highlighted the ball-playing talent in this team. I cannot think of another hooker who could have done what Dane Coles did and make that sliver of space for Lienert-Brown. And then the centre was off, playing off instinct, stepping until he saw the hole between Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert.
Former Boks wing Bryan Habana said afterwards that New Zealand “made it seem they’re the number one side in the world by quite some way.”
That’s generous. Some of the tackling, not for the first time, was not up to standard. Several individuals fell off tackles that they should have made. There were too many missed from Savea in particular. He needs to judge better when to go after the ball and when he just needs to bring the man down.
Hansen talked beforehand about the two most important things being “attitude and intent.” I am not sure he got what he was asking for, certainly in terms of attitude. The All Blacks, like the Crusaders, have had too many bad starts recently. They were well beaten in the first 20 minutes of each half against South Africa.
And yet the All Blacks beat South Africa by a larger margin than they have managed before at a World Cup. There has never previously been more than a score between the teams, and this is a very good South African side.
Hansen said afterwards, “You can’t strike if you don’t get TQB, which is top quality ball at the set-piece.”
The All Blacks didn’t get TQB. The two big calls also both went against Hansen’s team, when South Africa should have received a yellow card and a penalty try against them in the first half and had their second half try ruled out for Pieter Steph du Toit’s blatant offside. And yet the All Blacks still won by 10 points.
How beautiful is that?