Rugby Union: South Africa left reeling on the ropes

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The Independent Online
South Africa 18 New Zealand 29

Francois Pienaar was already down and out when the sucker punch finally landed. It had been a long time in coming, but once it caught South Africa flush on the chin they were never likely to climb off the canvas.

No boxer has ever been asked to take so much punishment. The Springboks bravely soaked up a succession of body blows. Their guard inevitably dropped once their captain had been carried off, and New Zealand's ferocious onslaught brought the contest to a brutal conclusion.

Pienaar faces three weeks out of action with a slipped vertebra of his neck. That will almost certainly rule him out of all the upcoming three Tests against the All Blacks. His absence will be a crucial factor because once he had been carried motionless from the field South Africa must have known the decision was always going to go against them.

Leading 18-6, they had done enough to suggest they might nick it on points. But with Pienaar gone New Zealand opened up to drive themselves to victory.

Glen Osborne, in as a late replacement for the injured Jonah Lomu, scored the decisive try in the 70th minute. Christian Cullen, the full-back, set up the chance, latching on to Andrew Mehrtens' pass down the left. Osborne, who has spent much of his time on the bench in the past year, neatly cut inside to score under the posts. Mehrtens added the conversion to give New Zealand a 19-18 advantage.

From that moment, sound judges in the capacity Newlands crowd sensed that South Africa might take a hammering of Rocky Balboa proportions. The bloody ending would not have disappointed them.

Craig Dowd drove his way over for a superbly worked try three minutes from time. Mehrtens duly stroked over the conversion and opened the cuts once again with a penalty in injury time that left the Springboks with little to look to forward in the rest of the month. Without Pienaar they lack leadership, and with Lomu likely to return at Durban next week another serious beating beckons.

Yet for long periods in the first half South Africa suggested that a shock win was very much on the cards. Tries from Japie Mulder and Os du Randt gave them a 15-6 lead at half time. Joel Stransky added a penalty early in the second half, but once Pienaar had gone South Africa were forced to realise the worst.

New Zealand are an awesome side. They are getting better with every game and their coach, John Hart, said: "Our ability to retain the ball for long periods always meant we were in control. South Africa defended bravely but I always felt that we had the game in our sights.

South Africa will hand the captaincy to Gary Teichmann, which will be significant in the long term for Springbok rugby. They plainly have to rebuild drastically over the next two years if they have any chance of retaining the World Cup. The next few weeks will be very hard. They certainly won't be pretty.

South Africa: Tries Mulder, du Randt; Conversion Stransky; Penalties Stransky 2. New Zealand: Tries Osborne, Dowd; Conversions Mehrtens 2; Penalties Mehrtens 5.

SOUTH AFRICA: J Small (Natal); J Swart (Western Province), H le Roux, J Mulder, P Hendriks (all Transvaal); J Stransky (Western Province), J van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); M Hurter (Northern Transvaal), J Allan (Natal), O du Randt (Orange Free State), M Andrews, S Atherton,(both Natal), R Kruger (Northern Transvaal), F Pienaar (Transvaal), G Teichmann (Natal). Replacements: H Strydom (Transvaal) for Pienaar, 53; D Theron (Griqualand West) for Du Randt, 77.

NEW ZEALAND: C Cullen (Manawatu); G Osborne, W Little, F Bunce (all North Harbour), J Wilson (Otago); A Mehrtens, J Marshall (both Canterbury); O Brown, S Fitzpatrick, C Dowd, R Brooke (all Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), J Kronfeld (Otago), M Jones, Z Brooke (both Auckland). Replacements: A Ieremia (Wellington) for Little, 42; A Blowers (Auckland) for Kronfeld, 66.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).