YOKOHAMA, Japan, Sep 21 – Defending champions New Zealand burnished their credentials as favourites for the Rugby World Cup with a hard-fought 23-13 win against top contenders South Africa in a blockbuster match in Yokohama on Saturday.
The impressive All Blacks cut the Springboks to ribbons during a five-minute period of dominance in the first half that earned them two converted tries, and then saw off a determined second-half fightback to register the vital Pool B win.
Before nearly 64,000 fans in Yokohama’s International Stadium, the All Blacks set the game alight with the sensational scoring spree which was against the early run of play.
Until then, the Springboks had enjoyed a huge territorial advantage but were unable to cross the line and had to rely on an early Handre Pollard penalty for their only points in the first half.
In a frantically paced second half, they came within one try of regaining the lead before late penalties made the game safe for New Zealand.
“We can’t moan about this performance. They really played well, I think the referee was good. And we just have to work really hard,” said a magnanimous Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus.
South Africa will still feel confident of qualifying from a group that also includes Italy, Namibia and Canada but are almost certain to finish second in the pool after Saturday’s defeat.
“It was a heck of a test match,” said All Black captain Kieran Read.
“It was a full 80 minutes right to the end there that we had to work,” said the skipper, who said the conditions were “tough.”
– ‘Handling errors’ –
For the fourth time in as many matches at this World Cup, the team that scored first finished second.
Perhaps it was nerves, but play was marred by many handling errors from both sides early in the contest.
South Africa’s reputed staunch defence was exposed by 26 missed tackles in the first half as the All Blacks’ pace proved too much.
After Springboks backrower Duane Vermeulen was given the honour in his 50th Test to lead the teams on to the field, Pollard quickly had the South Africans on the board with a handy penalty.
With the deft kicking of Faf de Klerk backed by the muscle of the South African pack, the All Blacks were pinned deep in their own half for most of the first quarter until a Richie Mo’unga breakout brought them into the game for the first time.
Although South Africa saved that try, Mo’unga landed the penalty to level the scores and almost immediately set up the next scoring move, as a chip kick to right wing Sevu Reece launched a 60-metre move that finished with a try for left wing George Bridge.
Influential centre Anton Lienert-Brown sparked New Zealand’s next long-range counter-attack which saw lock Scott Barrett pop up in support for the try.
It took South Africa until the eighth minute of the second half to score their first try when Pieter-Steph du Toit brushed aside Aaron Smith to score near the posts.
Pollard narrowed the gap further with a 40-metre drop goal to have the South Africans a try away from taking the lead.
But late penalties by Mo’unga and man-of-the-match Beauden Barrett gave the All Blacks a 10-point safety net.
“Today was a big game for both sides and fortunately for us, we came out on top,” said All Black coach Steve Hansen.
“It was another titanic struggle between New Zealand and South Africa and hopefully the people watching here today enjoyed it and got excited by it.”