South Africa vs. New Zealand: 6 Things We Learned
For the second year in succession, New Zealand won in Johannesburg to uphold their 100 percent winning record in the Rugby Championship.
In a tight-fought game including heroic tries, yellow cards and some of the best international rugby this world has to offer, the All Blacks earned a deserved 38-27 triumph at Ellis Park.
However, in the pursuit of self-improvement, both sides have lessons to learn from following this weekend's encounter.
Heyneke Meyer Plays New Zealand at Their Own Game
One can argue whether or not New Zealand’s style of rugby is the best in the world, but what isn’t up for debate is whether it works for them.
This Saturday, Heyneke Meyer’s side shifted from the tight-knit tactics usually deployed—centred largely around the Springboks’ pack—and opted for something less familiar.
Specifically in the first 20 minutes—before Bryan Habana went off with a hamstring injury—Meyer’s men fired at their visitors with the kind of quick initiative that Argentina would be proud of.
What’s more, South Africa showed a burning desire to get the ball to their wings as quickly as possible, hitting the All Blacks with the same sort of counter rugby that has worked so well for them in years gone by.
While it wasn’t quite maintained thanks to a break in first-half momentum, the Johannesburg hosts showed the ability to shift outside the forwards-orientated approach they’re so used to, giving New Zealand a great scare as a result.
Referee Selection Makes All the Difference
As was seen three weeks ago in Auckland, one refereeing decision can make all the difference to a match’s outcome, Bismarck Du Plessis’ wrongful sending off told the story at Eden Park.
On that occasion, it was Romain Poite who took over officiating duties, but thankfully, Nigel Owens was handed the referee duties for Saturday’s crunch climax, dubbed simply “The Final.”
Whereas others may have been tempted to blow up, Owens kept his whistle firmly holstered, often allowing 50/50 decisions to slide and encouraging great fluidity as a result.
The Welshman wasn’t as card-happy as other officials have shown themselves to be over the last eight weeks in particular, and spectators were given a much more entertaining spectacle because of it.
Ben Smith the World’s Best Finishing Winger Right Now
With eight Rugby Championship tries to his name in this year’s tournament, Ben Smith surpasses the seven scores managed by Bryan Habana in last year’s inaugural edition of the competition.
The Kiwi has been nothing short of prolific over the last two months, finishing just about everything laid ahead of him and ascending as an international star.
Quite simply, Smith’s 11th-minute try summed up everything Steve Hansen might look to squeeze out of a winger, displaying great positioning, a fine sidestep, strong fending ability and pace to spare.
While the likes of Habana, George North, Maxime Medard or any other of the world’s best wingers may stake their claim, there’s not a safer wide man in the sport based on current form.
Combining superb handling, speed and strength in abundance, there are not many safer bets from inside 22 metres.
All Blacks Youngsters Can Earn Back-to-Back World Cups
If Hansen isn’t encouraged by the current dominance of his All Blacks side, there’s a chance that the New Zealand coach can be even more pleased with what’s to come.
Following his side’s performances in the Rugby Championship, the 2015 World Cup will be looked at as a genuinely winnable competition for the reigning champions, who would become the first country ever to win the tournament twice in a row.
On Saturday, Hansen’s starting XV had an average of 27.5—arguably the ideal number considering the next World Cup is just over 18 months away and 29 considered prime for any rugby player.
What will affect the team’s odds massively is how they react to the loss of their veterans.
The likes of Andrew Hore, Richie McCaw and Tony Woodcock could be a little too far over the age of 30 to influence the All Blacks as much as they have in recent years come 2015.
However, Hansen can be encouraged by the sight of players like Sam Cane, Dane Coles and possibly Ben Tameifuna making strides in the All Blacks’ ranks in the very near future.
Having said that, there’s already steady first team figures among the likes of Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Aaron Smith, who between them hold a collective age of just 120.
Jean De Villiers Must Make 2015
Thirty-two years of age and still going strong, Jean De Villiers is perhaps the most crucial part of the South African puzzle should they hope for any success at the 2015 World Cup.
The kind of player that only comes around once per generation, De Villiers has been a sensational leader for the Springboks for years now but gave a real captain's display against the All Blacks.
As well as providing his customarily savvy playmaking presence, the veteran centre carried for more than 100 metres of his own, scoring one try and tying the defensive matters up well in the central channels (for the most part).
As long as he can stay fit, the Stormers talisman should be available to lead his side once again through their England trial in 18 months.
Not too often can a team look at one player and say that without them, they'd be far worse off. Without De Villiers, South Africa's odds look significantly worse.
Back-Row Magic Stands out
The modern game calls for the most rounded athletes possible, back row players numbering among the most versatile in the sport.
Doing precisely the job they’ve been put there to perform, numbers six, seven and eight—from both sides—were in full effect at Ellis Park.
Kieran Read contributed a performance worthy of Man of the Match honours, creating the game’s opening try with a superb offload to Ben Smith, but also crossed over for a try himself.
Aside from the New Zealand No. 8, however, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen each had a hand in crafting two Bryan Habana scores, while Liam Messam also pitched in with two tries for the visitors.
The first meeting between these two sides three weeks ago was also dominated by the forwards, disproving the old adage that backs are there for the glamour work.