As well as sending half his top tier players to New Zealand a week early, Rassie Erasmus also repatriated some mercenaries from offshore and named a new Springboks captain in Duane Vermeulen. Flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit and lock Eben Etzebeth were the only forwards retained from the starting fifteen in Johannesburg and wing Makazole Mapimpi was the only back.
Not one to be outdone in an adventurous selections contest, Steve Hansen fielded brand new combinations in both the loose forwards and midfield, shifted the world’s best first five to fullback and the world’s best fullback to wing. With so many new elements being introduced, the world’s most lethal finisher on the other wing would only see the ball if every other gamble paid off. He also gave goalkicking duties to the second best placekicker.
Both coaches insisted their focus was wholly on the immediate challenge but we’ll forgive this standard pre-game pablum. Certainly Hansen didn’t disclose any specific threat posed by the Springboks which required combining the slower pass of TJ Perenara and the preferred deeper launchpad of Richie Mo’unga. Clearly the pairing was a pre-World Cup move, designed to give the virtual strangers some high pressure time together in a black jersey in case the scenario became unavoidable later. Their styles are hardly compatible.
They proved this early with two kicks being charged down, placing the All Blacks under even more pressure than was caused by a general lack of cohesion. Handling errors, hurried options and silly penalties had them 0-6 down and it could have been worse if locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock hadn’t effectively disrupted the Springbok lineout.
Both sides’ attacking moves broke down in the face of tight defences but it was the Springboks who enjoyed the early territorial advantage. The All Blacks looked as dangerous as ever but passes didn’t go to hand and the pressure kept rising. They trailed by six with half-time approaching and it was clear something special would be required to break the shackles.
The selection of Beauden Barrett at fullback paid off when, with a license to range freely, he sped onto a wide pass by second five Sonny Bill Williams and raced around the hooking tacklers. Mapimpi and the other surprised defenders couldn’t narrow Barrett’s angle sufficiently to prevent centre Jack Goodhue taking his pass and scoring. Against the run of play the All Blacks went into the sheds leading by a point.
Three penalties to the Springboks’ two saw the hosts leading by 16-9 as an equally tight but radically different second half unfolded. The Springboks’ game plan had changed significantly. Their biggest men were no longer carting the ball into the All Blacks’ midfield and tactical kicks simply kept the ball in front of their forwards. Anyone reading the mind of Rassie Erasmus would have concluded his half-time instructions had been to rely on a territorial advantage eventually paying off.
But now the All Blacks were breaking tackles and their passes were sticking.
From a historical viewpoint it started to look very familiar... a see-sawing tight five battle and raking Springbok punts being carried back by hot-stepping All Blacks, with the ultimate result determined by tackle count but with almost all the action taking place between the 22s, so the score was only advancing in threes.
There was a chilling moment at a ruck on halfway when the two biggest men on the park came together. Retallick had been reaching over a pile of forwards when his replacement marker RG Snyman entered from the side with a savage charge. Hitting the arm full force at a horrible angle, he separated Retallick’s humerus and scapula. The lock reeled away from the other bodies in obvious agony.
Anyone reading who’s ever had their shoulder dislocated is probably now wincing in sympathy at the memory, the pain is so intense you can’t even think straight.
In a contest that was already starting to resemble the closest battles of the past, a career-threatening injury to a marquee player had been about the only thing missing. Retallick left the park under his own steam at least, albeit bent double in pain.
Not even our greatest player, however, could have prevented the final twist of fate.
With a minute remaining Springbok wing Cheslin Kolbe found himself in just enough space to aim a centering chip kick into the path of replacement halfbacks Aaron Smith and Herschel Jantjies. With the ball in mid air it was a neck-and-neck race between the two, both looking up and over their right shoulders as they converged, but the ball bounced forward off Jantjies’ arm and he dived to regather it before it became a knock-on. The TMO investigated to see if Smith had touched it but could find no fault, so the try was confirmed and Handre Pollard slotted the conversion to bring about only the fourth ever draw between rugby’s fiercest rivals.
All Blacks 16 Springboks 16
Word came Sunday that Retallick’s shoulder wasn’t structurally damaged. A dislocation is no small thing for an elite athlete, but at least surgery had been ruled out and his chances of taking part in the World Cup are good.
My memory is imperfect but I’m pretty sure the rugby public never used to piss and moan so much about otherwise riveting test matches not being tryfests. The point of international duels has always been to pit the world’s best attackers against the world’s best defenders, to see which teams were mentally strongest when pressure was intensified and margins were razor thin.
Personally I’d watched blissfully as one of the fiercest restricted space contests in recent memory unfolded, with the margin never greater than a converted try, while colleagues howled their derision at every rebuffed attack and forced error.
But then I use the term “colleagues” lightly. Most of them are easily-triggered urbanites with BMIs over 30 who never actually played the game and whose degenerate workplace banter reeks of racism or misogyny unless the cricket-mad subcontinental from IT or the androgynous bruiser from programming is within earshot.
More evidence that their professed love of sport is nothing more than butching up came when, before kickoff in Brisbane where two of the most closely-matched teams in rugby were due to face off, to a man they drifted away from the communal screen. I wandered past their suites occasionally during injury breaks and noted that those not actually working were glued to replays of various MMA bouts, all no doubt purporting to be the true Criminals Bitch-Fighting In Spandex World Championship.
Then again, maybe they’re actually smarter than me because the Suncorp test hardly lived up to its billing.
The Wallabies enjoyed a comfortable looking lead after wing Rhys Hodge finished off some lovely deception by first five Christian Leali’ifano and midfielder Marika Koroibete, but things tightened up drastically when Pumas number eight Fecundo Isa crashed over from a lineout maul and then only goal-line fumbles stopped the visitors taking the lead.
But the Wallabies hung on for their sixth win in a row in Queensland, confirming my growing suspicion that places where native populations have outlooks most detached from global convention are also where home sides’ winning records are strongest.
The Springboks now look odds-on to win the Rugby Championship at Salta. If they lose the All Blacks should take it with a win in Perth. And even if South Africa beats Argentina, the All Blacks can still snatch the trophy with a winning margin fifteen points greater than whatever the Boks win by.
But then if the Springboks do lose... and don’t put it past them in their current schizophrenic state... the Wallabies might yet steal the title with a win over the All Blacks.
If a mindset foreign to visitors is anything to go by, Perth is almost the perfect venue.