WestpacTrust Stadium, Wellington
Saturday, 20 July 2002 7:35pm
Referee: Stuart Dickison, AUS
Anyone who has lived in Wellington over the past decade knows that a Saturday night in the city is a memorable experience. The All Blacks will be sharing those sentiments after their 41-20 win over South Africa at the weekend. The five-tries-to two, bonus-point winning effort at WestpacTrust Stadium was a healthy performance from the home side, despite some nervous moments during the first half.
As this expatriate Wellington correspondent watched from Dunedin, it seemed clear that the capital had risen well to the occasion, with South African and New Zealand fans mixing well in the city during the lead-up to the game. The crowd greeted both anthems in good spirit and the All Blacks were again led in the haka by Caleb Ralph with what seemed, to this correspondent, to be a more intense performance than last week at Jade Stadium.
The South Africans responded in kind, linking arms and directly confronting the All Blacks as the haka reached its climax. According to the replay, they even seemed to be chanting something of their own. While it would be nice to think this was a healthy exchange of the ethnic heritage of both countries (not without precedent from the 1928 tour of South Africa), one would also not be surprised if the South Africans were mouthing something more blunt. Certainly, judging by several flare-ups during the game, the rivalry between the two countries is no less intense, even after 81 years.
Andrew Mehrtens scored first for New Zealand, with a penalty goal, but it was not long before the South Africans struck back, Werner Greeff dismantling the All Blacks defence, helped by some rather dubious tackling efforts by the home side. With Andre Pretorius kicking the conversion and a penalty goal shortly afterwards, South Africa was ahead 10-3.
Mehrtens came back with another penalty, but Greeff maintained the visitors margin with a dropped goal. Behind 13-6, the All Blacks needed to come back well and they did.
Scott Robertson and Christian Cullen combined well in penetrating the All Blacks defence, the latter sending Doug Howlett into the corner for a fine try. Mehrtens' conversion tied the score at 13-13 before one of the All Blacks shrewdest moves of the season.
After penetrating into the South Africans 22-metre line, Mark Hammett threw the ball in. Robertson ran around in front of the lineout, took the ball and charged up-field, unloading back to Hammett who scored. Despite some conjecture about whether the ball was thrown in five metres, the referee had no qualms about awarding the try and with another penalty by Mehrtens right on halftime, the All Blacks went into the break with a 21-13 lead.
Despite the South Africans dominating possession, the All Blacks had a comfortable margin in terms of territory, which seemed to pay off. It remained to be seen whether they could keep that effort up.
To their credit, they did. Reuben Thorne crossed a few minutes into the second spell, a captain's try well received by the crowd and supporters around the country. While some have remarked that he seems relatively inconspicuous on the field, Thorne seems to be quietly growing into the All Black captaincy role and has the potential to consolidate this position.
Subsequently, Andre Joubert scored for the visitors, which was converted by Pretorius. The South Africans had the potential for a comeback, but after Joubert was sinbinned (in the aftermath of a confrontation arising from a high tackle on Doug Howlett), they lost pace.
At this point, Howlett's good form continued, charging down the sideline and unloading to Justin Marshall. Marshall's try was popular, capping off the halfback's game and demonstrating his increasingly good form at top-level rugby. Unfortunately, another angry confrontation on the other side of the field distracted both teams before Mehrtens was called on to take the kick.
His eventual conversion and a drop goal made the score 36-20 and when Robertson capped his own game by scoring a final unconverted try, New Zealand emerged from their latest challenge 41-20, a margin that the most pessimistic of All Black supporters could take heart from.
It was a robust, hard-fought encounter in the tradition of New Zealand-South Africa encounters since 1921. Howlett, Robertson, Cullen and Marshall were standout players for the All Blacks, all featuring in scoring moves. Despite some missed kicks, (including a misplaced drop kick after the ball toppled from its tee) Merhtens' 16-point haul was admirable, with some well-executed kicks from the sideline.
To the delight of local fans, Tana Umaga and Jonah Lomu did get a run. While Umaga got into the action, Lomu looked relatively sluggish, perhaps reflecting his lack of matchplay and close South African marking. But John Mitchell will probably be wise in keeping both backs fit for action in the final two games of the Tri-Nations.
South African captain Corne Krige seemed a little unhappy with some of the refereeing calls after the game, but acknowledged that these were essentially 50-50 calls, with no substantial impact on the final result. His pride in his team and dedication to South African rugby reflects well on him, in an era when his side is undergoing lean times. Taine Randall, Todd Blackadder and Anton Oliver would have some sympathy with his position in terms of leading All Black teams in unsuccessful games against the best.
One would think the South Africans will need to lift their game against Australia next week. But they cannot be ruled out of consideration and the Australians will need to prepare with due diligence.
For the All Blacks, however, this is not a factor. In a fortnight, they go up against the Wallabies on their home ground in a match that could make or break their season. A draw will be sufficient but a win must be their target. As for the other option, it is unthinkable as an acceptable result.
New Zealand has not had the Bledisloe Cup since the dark days of 1998, when our team struggled against a second-string England side and were defeated by South Africa and Australia alike, including a 3-0 series whitewash against our trans-Tasman neighbours.
It is no longer an option for the All Blacks: they must bring the Cup home. Only through beating the World Cup holders in 2002 will they be able to claim some progress during the season.
Even after that, another match against the South Africans on their home territory beckons if they wish to maintain a clean record in the Tri-Nations. But the All Blacks cannot leap ahead of themselves.
Their mission in life must now be concise and uncompromising: to beat the Australians at home. They have no real choice but to accept it and John Mitchell, Robbie Deans, Reuben Thorne and their team must do everything within their ability, if not beyond it, to ensure that vision becomes a reality. New Zealand expects every one of them to do their duty.