Round 2 of the 2022 Rugby Championship kicked off with a twist, as Round 1’s fixtures were repeated, leaving South Africa again hosting New Zealand, this time in Johannesburg. The All Blacks came into the match on the back of a 3-match losing streak that had seen them fall to 5ᵗʰ in the World Rankings, but they started much better than last week, releasinging Ardie Savea down the left wing. And while he was stopped just short of the line, Damian Willemse was sent to the bin for cynically not rolling away to prevent a quick recycle, though a brake foot infringement from Samisoni Taukei’aho after New Zealand opted for a scrum allowed he Boks to clear their lines. New Zealand were finding some early success on their left wing, but an interception from Pieter-Steph du Toit suddenly put the 14 men on attack, and though he was stopped short, he offloaded to Lukhanyo Am, who was held up on the line. Am did successfully dot down a few minutes later after a looped pass from Aaron Smith went loose in his own 22, but the All Blacks got a reprieve as Luke Pearce adjudged that they had won the ball back just before that courtesy of a knock-on from Ox Nché, and so Willemse’s sin bin period ended with the game still scoreless, though the home team had also been forced into an early reshuffle in the back line, with Jesse Kriel suffering a head injury and being replaced by Willie le Roux—moving Am to the wing and Willemse into centre. The first points of the match finally came early in the second quarter, Richie Mo’unga sparking a break down he right wing with some quick hands to evade the defender shooting up and releasing Will Jordan and Rieko Ioane, and while they were finally stopped n the South African 22, the defence was caught offside, allowing Mo’unga an easy first kick at goal. A break from Caleb Clarke as Aaron Smith drew the cover at the edge of a breakdown brought the All Blacks straight back up to the same spot on the pitch, and after a series of phases earned another penalty advantage, Will Jordan got the ball in space out wide and sent his captain Sam Cane over in the corner for the try. And just minutes later, the All Blacks were threatening the line again, and after a couple of high tackles stopped early efforts, Taukei’aho eventually forced himself over from close range, Mo’unga adding the extras for a shock 0-15 lead. Jacques Nienaber looked to the bench early, introducing Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Jasper Wiese, and after the trio were involved immediately in a solid lineout and maul, the ball was spread wide to Am, who slipped his tackler and just managed to stretch out and reach the line, Pollard adding the extras to give the team—and the crowd—a much-needed boost. And when the Springbok pack won a scrum penalty right as the clock turned red, Handré Pollard stepped up to nail the penalty from within his own half, reducing the deficit to just 10-15 at the break.
South Africa started the second half still on the front foot and an early Pollard penalty cut the deficit to 2 points, but Mo’unga was soon able to kick one of his own after Jasper Wiese tackled Aaron Smith after the whistle. A huge penalty kick to touch put the Springboks back in the All Blacks 22, and after a series of strong carries in the middle, le Roux released Am out on the right wing only for Caleb Clarke to just drag a toe into touch before he could offload. However the home side has a penalty advantage and went back to the corner, however Ardie Savea made a crucial jackal to win a turnover as they threatened the line. A break from Am had them straight back on the attack, though, and after making big ground and drawing all the nearby black shirts, he threw a wide pass to send Makazole Mapimpi over uncontested, only for Luke Pearce to adjudge that Am’s break was helped by a block from the offside Jaden Hendrikse, so instead of pulling level with a conversion to take the lead, South Africa found themselves going a further 3 points behind courtesy of Mo’unga’s boot. There was no denying Mapimpi’s next try though, as Marx forced a turnover straight from the restart and Willemse sent a wide looping pass over about 5 men to send the wing over in the corner, Pollard’s touchline conversion making it 20-21 as the clock hit the hour. With just a quarter remaining, New Zealand tried playing out from their own 22 but debutant prop Fletcher Newell dropped a simple pass, and as Hendrikse hacked the ball into in-goal, he found himself blocked by replacement Beauden Barrett, who was sent to the bin just moments after coming on, while Pollard kicked the penalty to give the Boks their first lead of the game. New Zealand soon found themselves with a lineout just outside the home 22, but replacement hooker Codie Taylor saw his throw pinched by Franco Mostert, and then suffered the further indignity of having his throw penalised for not being straight, and the South African scrum took advantage of George Bower trying to walk around the outside to earn a penalty and kick themselves back into the New Zealand half. Despite being down a man, the open nature of the game suited the All Blacks, and Rieko Ioane’s break down the left wing brought the Kiwis back into the South African 22, an the team kept the pressure on to eventually see Ardie Savea’s offload find David havili, who stretched out for the try with 6 minutes remaining, Mo’unga adding the extras for a 5-point lead. With 3 minutes remaining, Mapimpi tried to run from deep but found himself turned over by Sam Whitelock, and a kick to deep from Jordie Barrett held up just in the field of play, forcing le ROux to play the ball and try clearing from the corner under heavy pressure, gifting the All Blacks a lineout just 5m from the try line, and after the maul and a series of carries were stopped on the line, Scott Barrett managed to force himself over to secure the win and deny the World Champions a losing bonus point, Mo’unga adding the extras to complete a 23-35 victory.
Did South Africa get their selections and tactics wrong for this game?
Obviously the loss of Jesse Kriel so early could not be expected, but the choice to have a 6-2 split on the bench forced a reshuffle that was far from ideal with Am being moved out to the wing, where he can be less involved defensively and will also not be able to compete for kicks as well as a wing would. And whether it was due to the early yellow card and then the reshuffle or not, but the defence looked to be much less willing to shoot up this week compared to in round 1, which game the All Blacks forwards a chance to get some momentum before contact and gave the backs a little more time to get their shape.
But besides that, there were also the selections of Dweba, Nché and Vermeulen, who were all removed after 30-35 minutes. Dweba wasn’t even in the original 23, only coming in after Bongi Mbonambi was injured, and he made it very clear that there is a substantial gulf between him and South Africa’s top 2 hookers. Aside from being responsible for one of the New Zealand breaks, he was also killing the Springboks at the set piece, having one early throw stolen and another deep in the red zone go askew, and even one overthrow that led to a decent South Africa attack did not look deliberate; while at the scrum, an early brake foot infringement meant that he was coming under extra scrutiny. Given Marx’s form, it was no shock to see Nienaber make the change after just 30 minutes in an attempt to gain some control.
Meanwhile in Vermeulen it was very clear that we were seeing the return of a quality player from injury, as he did not look close to 100%, and you can’t help wonder if Nienaber was expecting a much more deflated New Zealand side than they found themselves facing.
While the Boks have the depth of quality to recover and make a game of this, the match was lost in the first 35 minutes. And just over a year out from the World Cup, with a high likelihood that these teams meet in the quarterfinals, this is a timely reminder of how you have to get your tactics right to beat the All Blacks, even when they’re at their worst.
Silver lining to a very black cloud
While this victory should not be enough to save Ian Foster’s job, it is a welcome and timely reminder that it would not take much to get the All Blacks back to being a legitimate threat in time for the World Cup.
Richie Mo’unga was given a rare chance to not just start but have full control of the back line—as many of his chances to start have seen Beauden Barrett allowed to run the game from 15— and while he didn’t have the same in-your-face pressure as last week’s team faced, he managed to to get the ball moving much more effectively than we had seen from New Zealand in a while, with the ball repeatedly being got out to the wings, where they had players like Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke and Ardie Savea all just waiting for the opportunity to get up a head of steam into the space in front of them.
Meanwhile, the protection around their catchers under the high ball was much better, taking away an area that had been a real weapon for the Springboks last week, and th forwards were making ground with much more determined carrying, even Sam Cane looked much better than he had at any point since his return from injury.
And the other big success that needs mention is 24-year-old loosehead Ethan de Groot. Though he did give away a couple of penalties around the park, he put in an assured performance at the scrum against Frans Malherbe, one of the most destructive scrummaging tightheads in world rugby. With Joe Moody unavailable and Bower continuing to struggle at the moment, de Groot should be given the starting spot for the remainder of the tournament.
Things were still far from perfect for the All Blacks, with far too many unforced errors, but this will be a timely reminder that there is a good team here, just waiting for the right head coach to unlock them.