It was New Zealand’s day in the opening pool B encounter against South Africa on Saturday, a match which lived up to a number of expectations leading into it. What started out as an intense contest, worthy of a final, however, turned into a scrappy encounter that South Africa will hope to forget.
South Africa were dominant in the first 20 minutes of their World Cup opener, using excellent intensity and superior line speed to get under the New Zealanders’ skin. They took an early three point lead, maintained possession and territory very well, and looked almost unstoppable in the opening quarter of the game. If you were only able to watch the opening 20 minutes, you could be forgiven for thinking that South Africa were quite comfortable winners. However…
A missed kick for posts by Handre Pollard in the 18th minute sounded the start of South Africa’s descent into mediocrity. This miss, which glanced off the uprights and back into play, seemed to rock Pollard’s confidence, and he did not look like the influential playmaker that he has been throughout Rassie Erasmus’ tenure as Bok coach. A few minutes later, and after New Zealand had already levelled the scores, a poor pass from Faf de Klerk went to nobody, and the All Blacks capitalised to score a brilliant try against the run of play.
This was the first of several major mistakes from De Klerk, who looked like he was on debut. De Klerk looked to have a hand in everything, and wanted to do too much with the ball, often costing his teammates out wide. As the play continued, De Klerk’s box kicks got progressively less effective and more frustrating for Springboks supporters, and he should have been substituted much earlier than he was.
As the pressure on the two halfbacks increased, both of them continued to crack. Pollard looked to do less as he seemed to struggle to regain his confidence, forcing Willie le Roux to come in from fullback to play first receiver. By contrast, De Klerk wanted to do more and more, instead of trusting the players outside him and trusting the structures. Neither halfback was confident enough to take charge, and as the New Zealand defense got in the South Africans’ faces, they both became more frustrated at not being able to break the All Black line.
And this was the real reason that New Zealand looked so much better than South Africa. Both teams employed a very effective rush defense, which folded into the attacking line and attempted to shut down play at the first or second receiver. While this worked phenomenally well for South Africa in the opening quarter, New Zealand soon adapted to it and came up with a great counter for it.
Beauden Barrett spotted Makazole Mapimpi rushing in field, instead of remaining out wide to mark Sevu Reece on the wing. Instead of attempting a risky long pass, which was what Mapimpi would have been eying, Barrett made use of a number of pinpoint kick passes to his winger, which always resulted in a line break and running meters for the All Blacks. The All Blacks also used their two playmakers effectively to split the play between the open and blind side, causing problems for the Springbok defense.
By contrast, South Africa employed a kicking game reliant on their chasers’ ability to contest in the air, and regather a loose ball. This worked well in the opening stages, as Cheslin Kolbe looked unbeatable in the air, while the kicks were thought out well and set up only when the chasers were there. However, as De Klerk felt the pressure, he started launching kicks when there was nobody outside him to chase, which only gave the All Blacks the ball in open space. De Klerk’s kicking became flatter and deeper as the game went on, however they were not placed well enough to gain territory, and often the return from New Zealand meant that South Africa lost meters.
However there were some big positives for South African fans to look to; the biggest of all being the performance of the firecracker Ceslin Kolbe. Kolbe made a phenomenal World Cup debut, running 118 meters in his seven carries, and beating 11 defenders along the way. He would have scored a try (which may have reshaped the game entirely) after a brilliant break from Pollard, if the pass from Le Roux went anywhere but Kolbe’s bootstraps. In fact, Kolbe had a number of scoring opportunities, but was let down by his support, which was seldom there when needed.
In the end, New Zealand did what they do best against South Africa, which is capitalise on the Boks’ mistakes, of which there were many. While a lot of South African fans will justifiably be disheartened by their teams’ performance, there is plenty of time for South Africa to improve and steady their nerves before the knockout stages.