Master class from magical Mehrtens

Tri-Nations: All Blacks' peerless pivot produces a classic exhibition of his art to subdue the Springboks
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The Independent Online

After the surreal brilliance of the Bledisloe Cup epic in Sydney, the All Blacks posted a more mundane, yet equally impressive, victory over South Africa to confirm their re-emergence at the head of rugby's world order.

After the surreal brilliance of the Bledisloe Cup epic in Sydney, the All Blacks posted a more mundane, yet equally impressive, victory over South Africa to confirm their re-emergence at the head of rugby's world order.

If events at the Jade Stadium had something of an after the Lord Mayor's show feel, that will not have worried the New Zealand coach, Wayne Smith. Where the downing of the Wallabies was largely a triumph for individual attacking flair, this victory was built on collective efficiency in defence and a command performance from Andrew Mehrtens.

The Canterbury pivot, playing on his home ground, created both of Christian Cullen's early brace of tries and his kicking from open play tormented the visitors' back three. All the while, his three penalties and a drop goal ensured the All Blacks kept their opponents at arm's length.

Mehrtens' Springbok counterpart, Braam van Straaten, emerged with an identical 12-point haul, but the South Africans, despite a couple of near misses, failed to find a cutting edge to round off some concerted periods of pressure.

The post-match statistics showed they enjoyed 60 per cent of the possession, yet their anxiety at crucial moments betrayed a team attempting to ditch the habits of a lifetime in favour of the expansive approach of the southern hemisphere's other big two. The Springboks did enough to suggest that they are closing the gap, but a third consecutive defeat will heap pressure on their coach, Nick Mallett, as he struggles to convert the sceptics in the High Veld.

Another defeat in Australia next weekend will leave him with a face-saving operation to perform, when South Africa return for their two home TriNations dates next month.

Yesterday's defeat was in effect sealed in the opening stages of either half, when South Africa created and then spurned opportunities which might have posed some searching questions for this newlyconfident All Blacks side.

The first came amid an explosive start, when the Springbok flanker Corne Krige set the tone for a bruising physical contest with a thumping tackle on Cullen, which resulted in both players requiring treatment. From the resultant turnover it was only the alert reactions of Justin Marshall which prevented a try, the scrum-half just reaching Breyton Paulse's hack to the line ahead of Werner Swanepoel.

Twelve minutes into the second period another electrifying burst of pace from Paulse had Cullen performing a breathtaking act of agility to leap, goalkeeper-like, to divert the ball away from the diminutive winger's grasp.

When Van Straaten missed his first kick at goal, and an opportunity to narrow the gap to seven points, as the third quarter drew to a close, one sensed the Springboks' chance had gone, and Tony Brown's penalty 10 minutes from time allowed New Zealand to play out time in relative comfort.

South Africa had drawn first blood when Van Straaten punished an indiscretion from Carl Hoeft with his first penalty in the sixth minute, but the All Blacks delivered an instant riposte. Mehrtens' grubber to the left corner ought to have been dealt with by Percy Montgomery, but distracted by the on-rushing Jonah Lomu, he completely misjudged the flight of the ball and Cullen pounced.

Mehrtens' distribution had been slightly off-beam early on, but the stand-off's beautifully flighted pass gave Cullen a simple run-in for his second after 15 minutes.

Montgomery partially atoned with a drop-goal, but two penalties and a drop-goal from Mehrtens, Van Straaten replying with two kicks at goal, gave New Zealand a 19-12 half-time advantage. Another Mehrtens penalty early in the second period restored a 10-point cushion, and the Springboks' cause was not helped by the loss of the outstanding flanker Rassie Erasmus with a rib injury. When Krige was sin-binned with 11 minutes remaining for impeding Pita Alatini, the game was all but up.

There was still time for Cullen to spurn the chance of a hat-trick when he fumbled Alatini's pass, but New Zealand could still take much satisfaction from grinding out a win against their oldest rivals.

New Zealand: C Cullen; T Umaga, (both Wellington), M Robinson (Canterbury), P Alatini (Otago), J Lomu (Wellington); A Mehrtens, J Marshall (both Canterbury); C Hoeft, A Oliver, K Meeuws (all Otago), T Blackadder (Canterbury, capt), T Flavell (North Harbour), T Randell (Otago), R Cribb (North Harbour), J Kronfeld (Otago). Replacements: L MacDonald (Canterbury) for Cullen 2-6, N Maxwell (Canterbury) for Flavell 40, C Dowd (Auckland) for Hoeft 50, M Hammett (Canterbury) for Oliver 63, T Brown (Otago) for Mehrtens 68, S Robertson (Canterbury) for Kronfeld 74.

South Africa: P Montgomery (Western Province); T Delport (Golden Lions), R Fleck, D W Barry, B Paulse; B van Straaten (all Western Province), W Swanepoel (Golden Lions); R Kempson, C Marais, C Visagie (all Western Province), A Venter (Free State), A van den Berg (Natal), C Krige (Western Province), A Vos (Golden Lions, capt), R Erasmus (Golden Lions). Replacements: W Brosnihan (Natal) for Erasmus 47, W Meyer (Golden Lions) for Visagie 66, J Smit (Natal) for Kempson 72, J Labuschagne (Golden Lions) for Van den Berg 72, J van der Westhuizen (Blue Bulls) for Swanepoel 75, G Esterhuizen (Golden Lions) for Fleck 75.

Referee: C White (England).

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