The All Blacks kicked themselves to the Rugby World Cup Final with a masterclass of tactics and the effectiveness of the clever kick.
In the end, it was a matter of control – but in the middle this was less a test match than an organised and carelessly sanctioned game of chicken in which the combatants, blinded by desire or perhaps by their own suffocating pride, ran violently and recklessly and ceaselessly at their opponents in the vain hope that the other guy would blink first. The other guy rarely did.
The mere accounting of points for and against and a final tally that read 20-18 in favour of the All Blacks does not do justice to this particular encounter. Men were wounded at Twickenham today. Hopes and dreams were slaughtered. Those of great men, like Springboks Schalk Burger and Victor Matfield
The All Blacks, who had stretched and torn the French defence and found the frayed edges in the quarterfinal, found the fabric of the Springbok semifinal line had far less give in it. They were not allowed wide in the first half, save for one early opportunity that was duly taken by Jerome Kaino. Where they had lived in the five-metre line the week before, the All Blacks now had to camp in a far narrower channel.
New Zealand made 248 metres in the first half and the Springboks made 87. By the end they had made 400 and South Africa had not cracked 150. They had most of the ball and almost all of the territory. The South Africans wanted the All Blacks to do the work, but as Hemingway once said, “never mistake motion for action”. The real action was not found in what the All Blacks did, but in how far in advance they did it.
It was a matter of control – of tempo, of space, of the flow of the game. Who was really in control was up for debate – were the Springboks really in charge or were the All Blacks foxing again? The New Zealanders kicked repeatedly on attack, grubbing through on their forays into the five-metre line, forcing Le Roux and Petersen and Habana to remain vigilant in the backfield, to keep them out of the first line of defence.
It was chess. The All Blacks were playing ten moves in advance.
That’s the great thing about the subtlety of the All Blacks game plan. The Springboks, on the back of a dominant breakdown and an ability to work the inches in the contact areas had managed to build a first half lead courtesy of four penalties to Handre Pollard, but they were being set up all along.
It was a barrage of kicks in the first 40 minutes as NZ looked for a path to the try line. They kicked them high, they kicked them low, they kicked them along the ground and they chased and used the touch line. Last week they never sought sanctuary outside the white lines. This week the touch became their touch stone.
The Springboks waited for them to come down the middle. Burger and Louw and the others hunted them in the open space. The All Blacks sought holes, and they went left or right but never all the way. Over and over they challenged the line, probed for gaps, tested the willingness of the Springbok defence. They were methodical phase after phase, but there was no easy way to get through this great green wall.
They turned with the score at 7-12, and the tactics barely changed.
The All Blacks played with 14 men for nine minutes of the second half. Jerome Kaino watched on from the sideline as his team kept plugging. Dan Carter kicked them closer with a dropped goal. The All Blacks kicked the Springboks further into their own 22. Within three minutes of Kaino’s return to action the All Blacks turned their relentless kicking and carrying into the fulfilment of their chess game – they took South Africa wide to the left. Barrett crossed in the corner.
This was the time when the All Blacks, against men with less inside them than the Springboks, would have fancied their chances of landing the killer blow. But these South African men are infused with the kind of fortitude that has defined this rivalry for a century. They refused to go away. They stayed in the game through the boot of Handre Pollard. With eight minutes to go they trailed by just two points. Whatever had been taken from them through the effort required to make more than 100 tackles and to fight from out of their own half for the entire game was not enough to leave their spirit broken.
What broke them were the 18 missed tackles, and the endless press.
And the All Blacks were never dissuaded from a game plan that had given them the lead in the 52nd minute. A lead they never lost again. All those kicks. All those relentless, clever kicks. They were the kick in the guts for this Springbok team.
The All Blacks kicked themselves to victory in the rain at Twickenham on a Saturday. They were the agents of tactical subtlety.
They were the graceful masters of control.