Rugby Union: All Blacks hit the dark age

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The Independent Online
South Africa 24

New Zealand 23

THE GLOOM hanging over that fiercely-proud rugby nation New Zealand deepened yesterday when they surrendered an 18-point lead in the final 12 minutes of yesterday's Tri-Nations Test in Durban.

The All Blacks' 24-23 defeat confirms that they will collect this season's wooden spoon after lifting the trophy in each of the competition's two previous years. It was their fourth defeat in a row - their worst run since suffering six successive Test defeats in 1949.

New Zealand had thoroughly deserved a 23-5 lead going into the final quarter and there seemed little chance of an uninspired Springboks' team fighting their way back into the match. But a typical darting try on the break by the home scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen in the 68th minute followed by another from the replacement flanker Bobby Skinstad four minutes later narrowed the gap to just four points as a hiterto ruthless All Blacks' defence went to sleep.

With time running out, the South Africans opted to kick a penalty to the corner and from the resulting line-out their hooker James Dalton was carried over by his pack for the winning try in injury time.

Despite this crushing setback, the All Blacks' beleaguered coach John Hart remained upbeat. "My faith in the All Blacks has never wavered - I'm proud to be associated with them," he said. "Our performance tonight proved we are a great side. We went out to attack the Springbok scrum and I thought we outscrummaged them consistently. When Isitolo Maka [New Zealand's No 8]was taken out of the game, it was a huge blow to us - we lost a lot of presence. We are hugely disappointed but we have made a lot of progress from a few weeks ago."

The Springboks' skipper Gary Teichmann said: "It was a pretty big effort from us to win. It was sparked off by Joost's try - we needed someone to take the initiative. We played superb rugby in the last 15 minutes and it just showed the charcter of the side."

The South African wing Stefan Terblanche had barged through a tackle by the visiting full-back Christian Cullen for his seventh try in eight internationals to put his side 5-0 ahead in the third minute. But a 40- metre break by Jonah Lomu set up the first All Blacks' try for scrum-half Justin Marshall shortly afterwards. Then Maka powered through some weak tackling to set up Taine Randell for his ninth Test try. Both tries were converted by fly-half Andrew Mehrtens, who further punished an uncharacteristically indecisive and error-ridden Springbok side by kicking three penalties either side of half-time.

It was the Springboks' 13th successive victory - 12 of them under their coach Nick Mallett. New Zealand will try to end their barren run against Australia in a fortnight's time. South Africa lead the Tri-Nations table by three points from Australia who can still claim the title if they win the final Test in Johannesburg on Saturday.

South Africa: P Montgomery; S Terblanche, A Snyman (F Smith, 64), P Muller, P Rossouw; H Honiball, J van der Westhuizen, R Kempson, J Dalton,. A Garvey (O le Roux, 52), K Otto (B Skinstad, 40), M Andrews (Otto, 71), J Erasmus (A Aitken, 64), A Venter, G Teichmann (capt).

New Zealand: C Cullen; J Wilson, E Clarke, M Meyerhofler, J Lomu; A Mehrtens, J Marshall; C Hoeft, A Oliver, O Brown, R Willis, R Brooke, T Randell (capt), J Kronfeld, I Maka (S Robertson, 50).