Have the Springboks truly closed the gap between themselves and the All Blacks?
The short answer is no.
The 25-24 scoreline at Newlands was indeed a huge improvement on the 57-0 humiliation in Albany last month. The flow of the game in the final 10 minutes — a timely try by All Blacks fullback Damian McKenzie and then a composed defensive finish — showed why New Zealand have no equal at present and why the Boks still have some way to go.
This was the Boks’ 11th defeat to the old enemy in 12 tests. The upshot is that the All Blacks have gone through another Rugby Championship unbeaten. Steve Hansen’s side should take plenty of momentum and confidence into the tour of Australia and Europe in the coming months.
The Boks claimed a bonus point for finishing within seven of the victors. The subsequent result in Mendoza — a resounding 37-20 win for the Wallabies over Argentina —– allowed Australia to pip SA in the final Rugby Championship standings. For all their talk of striking out in a bold new direction, Allister Coetzee’s team have finished the southern hemisphere’s premier tournament in third place for the second successive year.
A lot can be read into the way the Boks played at Newlands, though. The team that looked to up the tempo and to offload at every opportunity, the team that was punished for its high-risk/high-reward approach in the preceding defeat to New Zealand and in the two draws against Australia, was nowhere to be seen. The Bok side that fronted up at Newlands sought to take the fight to the All Blacks at close quarters.
Like so many successful Bok teams of the past, they sought to slow the All Blacks down.
Captain Eben Etzebeth was at his aggressive best. Malcolm Marx produced his most dominant physical performance to date. A sharper showing by the Bok backs, and indeed by the team as a unit on defence, may have witnessed a different ending to a familiar SA-New Zealand story.
What Coetzee and his charges would do well to remember is that the All Blacks travelled to SA with the Rugby Championship title already in the bag. Several of their first-choice players were unavailable due to serious injuries or other reasons. Star fullback Ben Smith has taken a sabbatical from test rugby and won’t be back until 2018.
The odds were against the All Blacks being at their clinical best in this dead-rubber fixture. That said, they still had the class and temperament to clinch the contest at the death and maintain their mental hold on the Boks, whom they will meet in the pool phase of the 2019 World Cup.
The All Blacks hammered the Boks by significant margins in the preceding three clashes. Prior to that, in the period between 2013 and 2015, they made a habit out of winning tight matches against the Boks via a superior physical and tactical showing in the final 20 minutes. In that sense, what we saw at Newlands was nothing new.
The Boks must persist with a more traditional approach on the four-test tour to Europe. Coetzee’s men have won 43% of matches since the start of 2016. Their win record has been slightly better (55%) in 2017 and they will be looking to improve on that when they tackle Ireland, France, Italy and Wales later this year.