PARIS – A rare defeat for the mighty All Blacks has offered a glimmer of hope to teams hoping to wrestle the Webb Ellis Cup away from New Zealand at next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The Springboks' 36-34 victory in Wellington on the weekend ended a 15-match winning streak for the All Blacks, who have dominated world rugby since winning their second World Cup title in England in 2015 after previous success on home turf in 2011.
Excluding the 24-21 defeat by the British and Irish Lions in the drawn series in 2017, it was New Zealand's first defeat at home since 2009.
With the 2019 Rugby World Cup just a year away, the result has been seized upon as evidence that there is at least a chink in the all-conquering team's formidable armour.
“We lost the game because we allowed South Africa to score 36 points and that's something that we can control as a team. It's a team game,” said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
Star All Black Beauden Barrett had an off-day with the boot, missing four of six shots at goal, and there were a number of elementary defensive errors you never normally associate with New Zealand.
But tellingly, South Africa, like the Lions in their drawn series, proved that a physically confrontational defence and competing at the breakdown can pay dividends against the attack-minded All Blacks.
Hansen rued the fact Barrett did not go for a drop-goal at the end of the match which would have sealed the win, adding that the defeat might be a timely wake-up call for a side too used to victory.
“Sometimes in sporting events you can get things too easy and you mentally switch off a bit and when you play quality opposition they come back at you and it bites you,” Hansen said.
“There will be a lot of learnings for us and this team hasn't had much adversity. We've just got to take a big breath and do things right and be clinical... It's a massive (teaching tool), so I'd better be a good teacher over the next couple of weeks.
“My job's to be a good teacher, their job's to be a good student. We talk about that a lot as a team so the ball's in my court.”
'Not immune to pressure'
Former Lions player and coach Ian McGeechan said the Springboks had proved that the All Blacks were “not immune to pressure”.
“And for all their incredible try-scoring potential, they are perhaps not hugely experienced at winning in tight finishes,” McGeechan wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
“You simply have to compete with New Zealand at the breakdown. It's easier said than done. They are incredibly quick to reorganise and reset for the next phase... And once on the front foot, they stay there.
“The All Blacks play at a pace others struggle to match. It is not error-free. But that doesn't matter. They know if they keep the pace up, 99 percent of the time their opposition will not survive beyond an hour. South Africa did, because they remained competitive in the contact area throughout the game and had two half-backs who hounded their opposition. But they can be beaten.”
South Africa rugby was thrown into turmoil when the side suffered a shock loss to Japan at the 2015 World Cup, and the Boks struggled afterwards amid internal political interference and player unrest.
But with Rassie Erasmus now at the helm, a strong Springbok side - which every commentator insists is a must for the improvement of world rugby as a whole - looks to be coming together.
“This could be a real step-change for Rassie Erasmus' team, changing them as a group. They can really build from here,” McGeechan said of their victory over the All Blacks.
Leading South African rugby analyst and former Springboks coach Nick Mallett added: “After winning in Wellington they have raised the bar to new heights, and that is where it must stay.
“Let us build from what we achieved in Wellington.
“A key factor was putting the All Blacks under pressure - it is not a situation they are used to dealing with.”
Waiting in the wings in Japan will be World Rugby's second-ranked team Ireland and England as potentially the strongest rivals to New Zealand and possibly South Africa, with Australia also never a side to write off.
Before Japan, however, North will meet South in a crucial line-up of November internationals when coaches will rotate squads and fine-tune preparations for what promises to be a thrilling World Cup in 2019.