Last Saturday the Springboks recorded a 27-25 victory over the world champion, All Blacks, in their Castle Lager Rugby Championship match at Ellis Park. The Springboks’ performance, according to many, was one of the best produced in history.
It was a victory that not only ended a 22-match unbeaten record for the New Zealanders, but also allowed the rest of the rugby world to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing they are not invincible.
First Handre Pollard carved up the Kiwi defence, scoring two tries and adding 19 points as the Boks ripped into the All Blacks in the first hour.
Then with two minutes to go, after the All Blacks had staged a magnificent comeback to steal the lead, Lambie settled in for a cool 55-metre monster to take back the lead and ultimately give the Boks victory.
With less than a year to go before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in England, the Springboks received the boost of confidence they needed and ensured that they finally have won a game against their biggest rivals under Heyneke Meyer.
To say there was so much riding on this game would be an understatement. Meyer’s teams have come close before – in Dunedin in 2012, Ellis Park last year and Wellington a few weeks ago. In every game they were either outlasted or fell victim to their own mistakes.
This time it was different.
The atmosphere bristled on the way into Ellis Park, electric as the build-up continued in anticipation of the two best sides in the world facing each other.
The stadium was pure theatre inside and out. And once again the two sides delivered more than their share of drama.
Perhaps there are more absorbing sporting contests somewhere else in the world, but in terms of rugby, this is as good as it gets.
Those who have roundly criticised Meyer and his coaching methods often like to bring up the record against New Zealand. But even his harshest critics must at least acknowledge that the coach is on the right path.
The rugby the Boks played was a far cry from boring as they spread the ball and looked for opportunities, putting together possibly the best opening half under the coach in his tenure.
And at the centre of it all was Pollard. The 20-year old IRB Junior Player of the Year not only looked at ease in the pressure cauldron, he excelled in it.
With a pack that were as aggressive and dominant in the opening hour as any team has been against the All Blacks, and with Duane Vermeulen rising from the ashes like a phoenix.
Vermeulen’s impact was sensational, as he easily was the form forward on the field and was the obvious choice for man of the match.
While there was a plethora of Boks who played well, special mention must also go to Teboho Mohoje, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira and Jan Serfontein. Along with All Blacks such as Kieran Reid, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith and Malakai Fekitoa, they stood out in an epic game.
Pollard perhaps started a bit shaky, missing his first kick at goal, but played an integral part in the first try, which is likely to be the try of the season.
After being stopped in their 22, Willie le Roux saw an opening, called for the ball and made the bold decision to run, sending the ball to Pollard, who pinned his ears back and made 20 metres. The recycled ball was grubbered, snapped up by Cornal Hendricks and popped to Serfontein. Serfontein delivered the perfect pass to Francois Hougaard, who stepped out of Israel Dagg’s tackle to finish off an 80 metre try that gave the Boks hope.
Despite their dominance, the Boks weren’t running away on the scoreboard, and Beauden Barrett kept it a one point game with two penalties before Pollard took over.
The Boks were pounding the Kiwi defence, with Bryan Habana running them out of their own 22 – again started by Le Roux – when the recycled ball came to Pollard he shimmied, showed the ball and ghosted through the defence to score a sublime individual try.
The All Blacks are seldom dominated in this manner, and they reminded the Boks just how impressive they can be with a try out of nowhere, as Julian Savea kicked and collected, before Malakai Fekitoa finished off a try that stunned the crowd.
If anyone still doubted him, Pollard showed them on the stroke of halftime as he took the ball close to the scrum, beat both Aaron Smith and Barrett before rolling through Richie McCaw’s tackle to put the Boks up 21-13 at the break.
Pollard added another penalty shortly after halftime to extend the lead to 11 points, but there was always the sense it may not be enough.
Sure enough the All Black machine started revving its engine, and it wasn’t long before Conrad Smith drifted into space and bumped off Serfontein to score. Then a few minutes later Dane Coles stunned the crowd again as the All Blacks found too much space and punished the Boks, taking a 25-24 lead in the 70th minute.
The Boks continued to attack but found little leeway.
Then when Schalk Burger got the ball, Liam Messam flew in with a tackle that ended up being a swinging arm. Much deliberation followed and a penalty was awarded, with Lambie doing the necessary when it counted.
The Boks may know the Rugby Championship was already lost before this, but this victory against the world’s best will buoy them, knowing that if they meet on neutral soil in England next year, they have a good chance of winning a knockout game when it matters.
South Africa – Try: Francois Hougaard, Handre Pollard (2). Conversions: Pollard (3). Penalty: Pollard, Pat Lambie.
New Zealand – Tries: Malikai Fekitoa, Ben Smith, Dane Coles. Conversions: Beauden Barrett (2). Penalties: Barrett (2).