South Africa vs. New Zealand: Score, Recap and More for Rugby Union Championship
In a match brimming with the tension and buzz that would be more fitting for a Rugby World Cup final, New Zealand ran out deserved winners against a formidable South Africa side determined to run the ball in front of a home crowd at Ellis Park.
Having played and won all six of their games, the All Blacks completed their domination of the Rugby Union Championship in fitting style, running out as 27-38 victors over the Springs Boks.
It wouldn't be hyperbolic to describe this game as a true classic of the sport and one of the best test matches ever. It had relentless end-to-end action, heroic performances, high stakes and sideline intrigue.
It could well be the performance that defines this All Blacks side as the greatest international Rugby side of all-time.
Though the margin of defeat for the hosts was decisive, not only over 80 minutes but for their championship hopes too—South Africa needed to defeat New Zealand by a margin greater than seven points with a bonus point—they battled until the end.
Winning the championship wasn't the team's only objective, with the controversial manner of their visit to Auckland in September still a raw issue for the Spring Boks and their fans, who packed into Ellis Park to cheer on their side.
The atmosphere throughout, fueled by a 60,000 strong attendance, was intense. Every South African run and hit was accompanied by a booming roar.
As the clock wound down on this breathless showdown, the noise re-energised the players' tired legs, even if their hands had become clumsy through exhaustion.
The first points came through the Spring Boks in the ninth minute with a Morne Steyn penalty, opening up the score line for a trading of blows that would fire the game through the next 70 minutes.
Almost immediately, New Zealand struck back through Ben Smith, who scored a try in the 11th minute with Aaron Cruden converting. South Africa's response wasn't sluggish either.
Bryan Habana burst through to place the ball between the sticks, setting up Steyn for an easy kick. At this point, the game was already building something special.
Liam Messam—one of the stand out performers for the All Blacks—drove the ball home twice before the end of the first half to hand his team a fearsome lead going into the break. First, he bolted over the line from close range to allow Cruden to bring the scores to within one point, with New Zealand trailing 15-14.
His second came on the sound of the half-time horn. With the hooter sounding, Messam added the finishing touch to a stunning move, as the All Blacks sought to keep the ball alive.
Ma'a Nonu burst through before offloading to Andrew Hore on the over-lap, who combined with Messam to cut inside and break past Mtawarira and score the try, which took New Zealand into the lead by six points after Cruden's conversion.
Five minutes into the second half, Messam was once again heavily involved in the game's shifting narrative.
Sin binned for a foul at a breakdown after a flowing 14-phase move from the Spring Boks. His temporary departure took the All Blacks down to 14 men and allowed the home team to claw back some points through a Willie le Roux try.
At 22-21, South Africa only needed to score one more try and hold on in order to clinch the championship themselves.
With the intensity ratcheted up even further by the scoreline and anticipation from the stands, the standard of play followed suit with the quality on offer, somehow exceeding all pre-game hype and expectation.
For New Zealand, captain Kieran Read was at the heart of everything, marshaling his team forward, while Jean de Villiers equally lead by example for South Africa. Both sides looked to win the game through running and intelligent, technically excellent Rugby.
Even with a man down, the next breakthrough came for the All Blacks, who once again took the lead through a Beauden Barrett penalty in the 56th minute, who had replaced Cruden shortly after Messam's suspension.
The exchange between the teams didn't end there.
De Villiers blasted through Barrett to score South Africa's fourth try and secure the bonus point, before the Spring Boks were again pulled back just two minutes later.
This time, the try scorer for New Zealand was Barrett, who rushed the South African lines like a man possessed, determined to make up for his poor attempt to stop de Villiers.
The All Blacks finished the scoring with another try, fittingly landed by none other than Read, having once again lost a man to the sin bin after replacement Ben Franks threw a punch in the rook.
Prior to Franks' yellow, referee Nigel Owens was summoned to the touchline by his assistant regarding Dan Coles' absence from the New Zealand team sheet.
With another name listed in his place at number 16, the All Blacks blamed the error on a typo, which satisfied Owens enough for him to proceed with the game. Whether this clerical error will come back to haunt Read and co is likely to feature in much of the post-match reaction.
Considering the level of Rugby that had already been played, the game's tempo was unsustainable, leading to final moments broken up by slippery hands and poor passes.
Yet the players forced themselves on and the contest remained buoyant rather than the spectacle descending into slapstick or farce. At the final whistle the elation from the New Zealand camp was evident, but so was the pride and respect of the Spring Boks.
Is this New Zealand team the best international side ever?
South Africa may not have been able to steal the championship from under the nose of their rivals, the world's undisputed number one team, the All Blacks, and they didn't avenge their defeat in Auckland as far as the result went.
However, the brilliance of the game itself and how it was played was as much a product of the defeated runners-up as it was the winning, confirmed champions.
The focus on running from the Spring Boks was perhaps unexpected, and a more pragmatic approach may well have potentially served them better, but with four tries set as their target and Ellis Park in full voice, de Villiers and his team took the game to New Zealand.
What resulted was one of the finest displays of test Rugby and a game that is sure to become a reference point for those in and outside of the sport.
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