South Africa used the boot of flyhalf Morne Steyn and tremendous resolve in defense to beat New Zealand 18-5 in their Tri-Nations Test at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Although the All Blacks scored the only try of the match — through center Richard Kahui — and threatened the Springboks line several times, they could not overcome the tenacious scrambling defense of the world champions nor the boot of Steyn, who kicked five penalties and a drop-goal.
The All Blacks spread the ball much more than the Springboks, but a committed defensive effort and intensity at the breakdowns meant South Africa eventually suffocated the visitors.
South Africa’s defiant last stand, having lost their three previous Tri-Nations matches to ensure they finish bottom of the table, means they will travel to the World Cup with some confidence restored.
Seasoned players such as Steyn, whose only fault with the boot was a missed drop-goal, wing Bryan Habana and center Jaque Fourie performed superbly to suggest they will still be a force at the World Cup.
“That victory was just reward for what we’ve been trying to do — a result like that means the players start believing in what we are doing,” coach Peter de Villiers told a press conference.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry said the result would have been different had his team taken several try-scoring opportunities.
“We had six opportunities to score and we converted one of them, which was disappointing,” Henry said. “We needed to be more patient and build our game, but we were second by a distance.”
New Zealand, missing a host of senior players who had been rested for the match, including captain Richie McCaw and influential flyhalf Dan Carter, had the Springboks scrambling from the start, with Habana, whose work rate was impressive, saving a certain try with a brilliant cover tackle on scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan and Fourie twice getting in among the New Zealand backs to intercept the ball.
In the seventh minute, the Springboks eventually had some respite as the All Blacks went off their feet at a ruck and Steyn sent a long-range penalty soaring between the posts.
South Africa were also toying with New Zealand in the scrums and they earned a penalty from that set-piece in the 11th minute, which Steyn kicked from long range.
Six minutes later, All Blacks flank Adam Thomson helped himself to ruck ball from an offside position, allowing Steyn to kick a third lengthy penalty.
Two minutes later, Springboks tight-head prop Jannie du Plessis tried to run the ball and was caught in possession by a swarm of All Blacks, conceding a penalty that flyhalf Colin Slade missed.
New Zealand were caught on the defensive by a series of Springboks drives as the half-hour neared, eventually infringing at a ruck for Steyn to kick his fourth penalty and make it 12-0.
The All Blacks remained trapped in their territory, allowing Steyn to make the lead 15-0 with a 32nd-minute drop-goal, but the world No. 1-ranked side set up an intriguing second half by scoring just before the break, Kahui powering over the line despite two tacklers, after wing Hosea Gear cut through the Springboks back line and laid off the ball.
The All Blacks dominated the opening exchanges of the second half and seemed set to score their second try when fullback Israel Dagg broke free down the left touchline and, even though he was caught by live-wire Springboks replacement back Francois Hougaard, managed to get the ball away to Cowan, who dived over the line. However, television match official Johan Meuwesen ruled that the pass from Dagg to Cowan had been forward.
The Springboks managed to successfully slow the tempo of the game in the second half, forcing the All Blacks into trading kicks and stifling them at the breakdowns, where flank Heinrich Brussouw was the dominant force.
The visitors, beaten in the scrum, conceded one more penalty from that set-piece, which Steyn kicked to seal the 18-5 victory.
Despite New Zealand playing with more daring, the All Blacks’ Thomson said the Springboks’ game plan could still prevail at the World Cup.
“That’s what they’re renowned for, being physical, defending well and taking their goals,” Thomson said. “It doesn’t matter how flash you are in a World Cup, a win by one point can take it and they have a pretty impressive kicker in Morne Steyn.”
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