The penultimate round of the 2021 Rugby Championship kicked off with what many of us have been looking forward to for a while: the 100ᵗʰ Test match between South Africa and New Zealand. With the World Champions coming off 2 losses and New Zealand having taken the top spot in the rankings after last weekend, the scene was set in Perth for what would hopefully be a thrilling match.
And thrilling was exactly what the teams served up in the opening exchanges, with both teams scoring in the first 5 minutes. Codie Taylor found a gap to breakout f his own half after just 2 minutes and fed the supporting Will Jordan, who could not by caught by any of the covering defenders. Then just minutes later, a Faf de Klerk bomb into the New Zealand 22 was dropped by the usually reliable George Bridge, and before anyone could react, Sbu Nkosi swooped in to grab the loose ball and go over for the try, though Handré Pollard’s missed conversion left the Boks behind. Sadly for anyone late to their seat, they proved to be the only tries of the game, as handling errors on both sides brought a number of attacks to premature ends, however there was still plenty of great rugby to keep fans enthralled. Over the next 10 minutes, Pollard made up for his missed conversion with 2 penalties to give his side a lead, but Jordie Barrett cut the lead with a penalty of his own on 30 minutes. Then with 5 minutes left in the half, New Zealand looked to spread the ball wide, only for a deliberate knock on by Nkosi to bring the attack to an early end, resulting in a yellow card for the wing and 3 points for the kiwis, who went into the break with a 13-11 lead.
The second half would be more of the same, though impressive cameos from back rowers Hoskins Sotutu and Marco van Staden certainly livened up the latter stages. Pollard and Barrett traded penalties around the hour mark, before Pollard added another penalty to put the Boks back ahead by a point with just over 10 minutes remaining. As the clocked ticked down, it looked like the Boks may be able to hold on for a much-needed win, until Willie Le Roux was forced to drop on a loose ball and Quinn Tupaea was straight over the top to win a penalty for holding on, and Jordie Barrett held his nerve to kick the All Blacks to a 19-17 victory that mathematically secured them the Rugby Championship title.
Over the last couple of weeks, South Africa have found themselves struggling with the niggle of the Wallabies at the breakdown. Well this week, despite the quality in the All Blacks back row, it was the Boks who were causing the issues at the breakdown. With Kwagga Smith brought in as another specialist back row in place of Franco Mostert, the World Champions were left with 3 true back rowers to match up against New Zealand and target the breakdown, hampering the quick and clean ball TJ Perenara wanted and putting him under heavy pressure.
With another more open game, Kwagga Smith looked much more comfortable in this match, while he was partnered by the always-impressive Duane Vermeulen and captain Siya Kolisi, whose performances are reaching Michael Hooper levels of consistent excellence that they go under the radar.
As great as the All Blacks are, they still need quick and clean ruck ball like any team. With a reliable defence like any top international team should have, sufficient pressure at the breakdown could just be enough to hold the All Blacks to a beatable score.
Best of the bunch?
If I was forced into a situation where I was only allowed to pick one of the Barrett brothers for my All Blacks squad, it would be Jordie. While all 3 of the brothers are incredible talents, the youngest of the trio has a versatility that the others don’t having played across the back 3 at Test level and also featured at 10 for the Hurricanes. But he also has the attributes to provide cover in the centres, with the strength to look after himself in contact, the pace to exploit a gap and the handling skills to not just keep a play going but to put a teammate through in space.
But what he also has is a monster boot. While his goalkicking percentages have generally been in the mid-70s at the highest for a season, he is putting together a run of games as the All Blacks’ primary kicker with Richie Mo’unga not involved, and that is leading to much more accurate performances as he is not just getting given he difficult kicks. And by having the chance to find his range and experience the crowd while kicking throughout the match, it suddenly makes those clutch kicks like this week’s match winner so much easier.
The All Blacks have depth at every position, but with his versatility, I think they should always be finding a spot for a matchwinner like him.
Go with the Flo
This match saw former 7s star and specialist back row Kwagga Smith restored to the Springboks 7 jersey in place of Franco Mostert, with Pieter-Steph du Toit currently out injured. After struggling in a few matches as South Africa kept things tight, Smith looked much better in a more open match.
However, he does still appear to be giving away a number of penalties, which at international level can be a killer. Now it’s understandable that he is playing on or beyond the line of legality as much as he can, as he wants to have a positive on the game and be visible to the coaches in order to keep getting selected with such depth available in the South African back row. However in rugby, sometimes you can try too hard, and that can end up harming your team.
Of course, Smith is still relatively inexperienced at Test level, so he will improve in time. What he needs to do is take a page out of the book of a former Springbok star, Francois Louw. While Louw was incredible at the breakdown, what made him a star was the way that he picked his moments, knowing when to hold off and join the defensive line and when to go in for the kill and get that crucial turnover. If Smith can add this nous to his game, then expect to see him holding down a place in the 23 for the foreseeable future.