In the final moments of a match which the physical New Zealand centre Ma'a Nonu described as "brutal", a lone trumpeter in a soaked Westpac Stadium solemnly played "The Last Post". It was an apt comment on a dreadfully disappointing performance by the world champions, South Africa.
Under their new coach, Peter de Villiers, the Springboks seemed lost and bewildered. De Villiers wants a more expansive style yet, on a field saturated by heavy rain and with a growing gale blowing, pragmatism should have prevailed. What the night needed was an old-fashioned South African forward performance, full of intimidation and power in scrums and line-outs, with a fly-half putting his forwards in position through kicks into the corners. But the Springbok forwards and their No 10, Butch James, were well below their best.
The All Black pack rose magnificently to the occasion. The lock forward Ali Williams was superbly feisty while the loose-head prop, Tony Woodcock, destroyed the Springboks in the scrum. South Africa were unfortunate to lose their captain, John Smit, who was forced out of the match and almost certainly this two-match Tri-Nations trip to New Zealand after damaging his groin in a spear tackle from All Black lock Brad Thorn.
The Australian referee, Stuart Dickinson, did not act but, rightly, Thorn was cited and banned for a week by a disciplinary panel yesterday.
Smit's loss was not the reason the Boks lost. They lacked the cohesion that could have heaped pressure on the All Blacks. Their coach, Graham Henry, has been subject to fierce criticism since his reappointment after October's World Cup failure, yet this win, achieved without his injured captain, Richie McCaw, gives him some breathing space.
Smit said: "That is as poor as we could play in a Tri-Nations game. We can certainly only get better from there. There is a hell of a lot still left to come from us and that is where we are most disappointed. There was a lot of inaccuracy in our game."
The Springboks handed Dan Carter regular penalty chances and he took four out of five, hitting a post with the other. Ironically, it was his poor kick which gave South Africa the chance to put Bryan Habana over just before half-time. That made it 9-8 to New Zealand and the match was in the balance. But once the No 8, Jerome Kaino, scored five minutes into the second half and Carter's superb touchline conversion made it 16-8, all self-belief drained out of the Boks. They never looked like making up the leeway and New Zealand should have scored more, Kaino having a perfectly legitimate try disallowed for a plainly wrong offside decision.
Henry said: "We got that win through the character of our players in the second half. But we have still got a lot of work to do and a lot of improving before next week. South Africa will be much more competitive then and that is going to be a huge match."
If the Springboks are to live up to their tag of world champions, they have to raise their game significantly in Dunedin on Saturday. However, there was a sense in Wellington that, if they couldn't win here, it would be doubly difficult in the far south next weekend.
New Zealand: Try Kaino; Conversion Carter; Penalties Carter 4; South Africa: Try Habana; Penalty James.
New Zealand: M Muliaina; S Sivivatu (L MacDonald, 69), C Smith, M Nonu, R Wulf; D Carter, A Ellis (J Cowan, 74); A Woodcock, A Hore (K Mealamu, 68), G Somerville (N Tialata, 74), B Thorn, A Williams, A Thomson (S Lauaki, 60), R So'oialo (capt), J Kaino.
South Africa: C Jantjes (P Montgomery, 63); O Ndungane, A Jacobs, J de Villiers, B Habana; B James (F Steyn, 60), R Januarie (B Conradie, 71); G Steenkamp, J Smit (capt; B du Plessis, 35), C J van der Linde (B Mujati, 47), B Botha (A Bekker, 71), V Matfield, S Burger, J Smith, J van Niekerk (L Watson, 60).
Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).Reuse content