DURBAN – We could have forgiven Rassie Erasmus had he worn a smirk at his victorious press conference in the depths of the Cake Tin on Saturday. After all, his plan had come together... magnificently!
The Springbok coach had made no secret of the fact that all of his plotting, planning and experimentation over the course of his seven Tests this year had the singular, underlying aim of beating the All Blacks in Wellington. There have been gambles, sacrifices even, all with the express purpose of a glorious checkmate in the New Zealand capital. And it came to pass...
He will admit, though, that he cut it a little fine given the despairing losses in Mendoza and Brisbane which could have fatally impaired the belief in his squad, but come kick-off for the big one there was a visible reassurance about Siya Kolisi and his mighty men, a confidence and composure that they had a plan to exploit the Kiwis’ vulnerabilities and the mojo to go toe-to-toe with arguably the best sports team on the planet.
You do not beat the All Blacks if you don’t believe you can do it, so let’s doff our caps in the direction of the Bok coaching staff who got it right on the team room blackboard and who pushed all the right mental buttons during what must have been a nervy week.
It is often said that the spirit in a team can be judged by the players’ appetite for destruction on defence, and in this regard the courage shown in repelling wave after wave of All Black attacks was staggering.
For much of the second half, tackling was just about all the Boks did. It was akin to the defence of the Alamo, except the green and gold line mostly held firm. The All Blacks enjoyed 75 percent possession, meaning they had a surfeit of ammunition. On another day and against a team less bloody minded, this All Black team would have scored 50-plus without breaking a sweat.
The Boks had to make a colossal 235 tackles compared to just 61 from New Zealand. It was a herculean effort from the South Africans and it required each player to have his best ever day on defence in a Bok jersey.
Pieter-Steph du Toit, for example, made an incredible 28 tackles in an extraordinary performance that suggests he is going to be a Bok great, and that at blindside flank he has found his best position.
Of course he was hardly alone in repeatedly thrusting his body on the line. There were heroes all over the pitch. Kolisi confirmed once and for all that he is a fine leader of men by setting the example in the engine room.
Malcolm Marx was another who showed his true colours, living up to his billing as the world’s best hooker with his strongest game of the year. Great players turn it on for the big occasions.
Handre Pollard, vilified for woeful goal-kicking in Durban and Mendoza, returned a 100 percent record when it mattered most. His metronomic kicking contrasted starkly with the errant boot of Beauden Barrett, who was off target with four of his six shots at goal.
Barrett discovered just what a great leveller sport can be. He has been magnificent this year, but in missing those crucial kicks he was shown to be fallible after all.
In 12 months’ time, almost to the day, these teams will square up in the opening round of the World Cup in Japan and victory for the Boks has given them an incalculable psychological boost. They, and the rest of the rugby world, now know that the All Blacks are not invincible.
It is true that a lot of stars have to be aligned for them to be beaten, but it can be done, and Saturday’s victory will fuel belief that anything is possible at the 2019 World Cup.