14 September 2009
South Africa secured the 2009 Tri-Nations title with a 32-29 win over New Zealand in Hamilton on Saturday. It was the Springboks’ fifth win from six Tri-Nations matches.
After the Boks’ somewhat flat display against the Wallabies the previous weekend in Brisbane, where the Australians notched a 21-6 win, SA captain John Smit had come in for plenty of criticism. Against the Kiwis, he answered his critics with an inspired display.
He was solid in the scrums and won a hugely important penalty on the hour mark when he overpowered Tony Woodcock with the All Blacks deep in South African territory. He also put in the tackle of the night, smashing Brad Thorn back and forcing the lock to cough up the ball in what some deemed a measure of revenge for Thorn’s spear tackle on Smit in last season’s Tri-Nations competition.
Smit was also, as usual, inspirational in his role as a leader. The general opinion among leading experts is that he is the finest international captain in the game today.
The skipper was well backed up by his deputy Victor Matfield, who was in imperious form at lineout time, turning the All Blacks’ throw-ins into a lottery, and a losing one at that most of the time.
In fact, New Zealand failed to win a single lineout in the first half. When they eventually won one in the second half their attempt to move the ball wide went horribly wrong when Jean de Villiers intercepted a Daniel Carter pass and sprinted away for a try.
Another of the senior players, Fourie du Preez, was superb in the manner in which he controlled the game from the base of the scrum. Opinion is fairly united that he is the best number nine in the game at present.
And Francois Steyn, in his final match before joining French club Racing Metro, was simply sensational with three long-distance kicks at goal. His first kick, from South Africa’s 10-metre line, 60 metres long, silenced the Hamilton crowd. He then followed that up with others successful kicks from 58 and 52 metres.
Captain Smit described Steyn’s boot as a “siege gun”.
Besides winning the Tri-Nations, South Africa’s third win of the season was the first time the Springboks had managed the feat of three wins in succession over the All Blacks since 1949, when Felix du Plessis, the father of Morne du Plessis, led SA to a 4-0 sweep of New Zealand in South Africa.
When South Africa won 30-28 in Dunedin last year, it was the Boks first win in New Zealand in 10 years. Now they have managed two in as many years.
The game got off to a disappointing start for the Springboks when captain Smit was blown up for obstructing while supporting Matfield as he fielded the kick off. It was a disputable award by referee Nigel Owens, but it cost the South Africa as Daniel Carter landed his shot at goal.
In the fifth minute, the All Blacks were penalised for going offsides at a ruck. When Francois Steyn indicated he wanted to kick for goals, there were some who laughed at the idea of a 60-metre attempt. When the kick went over, the Waikato Stadium was stunned, causing the shouts to die down in the throats of New Zealand supporters.
Three minutes later, Steyn was at it again. Strong defence from the Springboks led to Stephen Donald holding onto the ball on the ground. The SA fullback knocked over another big kick to put South Africa 6-3 in front.
The first scrum took place after about a quarter of an hour. It went down when Bok skipper Smit slipped. Slips are supposed to result in reset scrums, but even though referee Owens acknowledged that it was a slip he awarded a penalty to New Zealand. Carter took advantage of the opportunity to level the scores at 6-6.
Only three minutes later, the Boks, despite having played most of the game in their half, were back in the lead. This time it was Morne Steyn who provided the points, calming slotting a drop goal.
Midway through the half the Springboks scored the first try of the contest.
Scrumhalf Du Preez hoisted a high-up-and-under onto Joe Rokocoko. Under pressure from the SA number nine, Rokocoko failed to field the ball. Mils Muliaina also couldn’t gather it up, but Bakkies Botha could. He drove towards the tryline and was brought down only a metre short. Du Preez was back up in support and sold a dummy to the short side before forcing his way over for the try.
The Springboks’ 10-point lead was soon reduced to seven points when the South African forwards were penalised for entering a ruck from the side. Carter was pinpoint in his accuracy from a difficult angle to make the score 16-9.
Fullback Steyn was back to punish the All Blacks shortly after that, converting another penalty from the halfway line to put the Springboks 10 points clear again.
New Zealand’s frustration, which was compounded by their inability to win a lineout, cost them points in the 32nd minute when Kieran Read shoulder-charged Bryan Habana after the whistle had sounded. Morne Steyn made them pay with a three-pointer that extended South Africa’s advantage to 22-9.
Carter, with another assured kick, made it 22-12 two minutes later after the Boks were blown up for going offsides at a ruck.
The teams turned with South Africa in the driving seat; Coming into the game, New Zealand knew they needed wins over the Springboks and Australia, and at least one bonus point, as well as to keep the Boks without a point, in order to be in with a shout if winning the Tri-Nations. It wasn’t going well for the home side.
South Africa began the second half strongly, forcing New Zealand to play from inside their half. A drive for the line by Bismarck du Plessis was stopped when SA was blown up for accidental obstruction only five metres from the whitewash.
Captain John Smit earned high-fives all round when he crushed Brad Thorn in a tackle, driving the big lock backwards in the air as the ball flew forwards out of his hands and gave the Springboks possession.
In the 51st minute, the All Blacks finally won a lineout. They tried to run the ball, but Jean de Villiers read the move perfectly and intercepted Carter’s pass with ease before racing away to score under the posts. Morne Steyn added the extras to put South Africa over two converted tries clear at 29-12 ahead.
Four minutes later, the All Blacks hit back. Jimmy Cowan took a quick penalty and fed the ball left. Isaia Toeava, on for Donald, took the outside gap and fed Sitiveni Sivivatu, who went over for the try. Carter’s boot was smoking hot and his conversion attempt was again on the money. 29-19 to the Springboks.
Just after the hour-mark, Carter punished Bakkies Botha for side entry at a ruck with a penalty kick that made it 29-22.
With 10 minutes to go, the gap was back to 10 points. A clever kick into space by Fourie du Preez left mils Muliaina isolated at the back with Habana and Jaque Fourie on top of him when he field the ball. He was forced to hold onto it on the ground, resulting in a penalty to South Africa. The dependable Morne Steyn slotted the penalty to make it 32-22.
The All Blacks were desperately trying to haul in the Springboks, giving the ball air and trying to move it wide, but time after time John Smit and company put in punishing hits to stop the home team’s momentum.
Finally, with two minutes left on the clock, Carter found captain Richie McCaw with a superb cross kick on the right hand touchline, right on the Springboks’ try line. McCaw fell over for the try and Carter duly converted from the sideline to make it 32-29.
The All Blacks surged back onto the attack, looking for a last gasp win and once again they tried to catch the Springboks out with a cross kick to the corner from Carter. His kick, however, passed just over the outstretched arms of lock Isaac Boss and went into touch.
The final whistle sounded and South Africa had won their third Tri-Nations title and their first since 2004.
South Africa’s trophy cabinet now includes the Tri-Nations trophy, the World Cup, the Nelson Mandela Challenge Plate (for beating Australia overall in the Tri-Nations), the Freedom Cup (for beating New Zealand overall in the Tri-Nations), the British and Irish Lion series trophy, the Super 14 trophy, and the IRB Sevens World Series Trophy. It’s been an excellent year for the country’s rugby teams.
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