Cape Town - It wasn’t Dan Carter who stood in the way of the Springboks and history, it was French referee Romain Poite, and thanks to him the South Africans face the prospect of having to make a four try bonus point win over Australia in their next match a non-negotiable.
According to the supersport.com website, the Boks didn’t start well at Eden Park, where they haven’t won since 1937, and they were trailing when Poite sent their hugely influential hooker Bismarck du Plessis, by far their best player to that point, for his initial spell of 10 minutes in the cooler for a hard but fair tackle that effectively ended All Black flyhalf Carter’s Castle Lager Rugby Championship campaign.
But they were coming back into it, and it would take a huge leap in the imagination to suggest with any certainty that the All Blacks, if they were destined to win a match of 15 against 15, were going to do so by more than seven points and score four tries in the process.
The South Africans weren’t as strong at the collisions as they had been the previous week against Australia and some poor mistakes led to the first try to the All Blacks early in the game. Bryan Habana’s misdirected field kick led directly to the Ma’a Nonu kick into the corner which Willie le Roux for some inexplicable reason carried into touch. You don’t give the All Blacks field position and expect to get away with it and rule No 1 about playing that team is surely that your field kicking always has to be executed with pinpoint accuracy. Nothing kicks are punished, as Habana’s was.
But it wasn’t a game where you expected the winner to end up with five log points against nothing, and that the Kiwis did manage to win comfortably and score four tries was entirely down to Poite’s abysmal and unforgiveable error, one that even the IRB have now admitted in a statement was the wrong call.
They followed up by saying he was only human, but surely in this age humans shouldn’t be allowed to ignore the electronic evidence that he would surely have picked up when the incident was replayed on the big screen during one of those interminable breaks for TMO adjudication on what happened subsequently to the Du Plessis tackle that slow down modern rugby and are becoming almost as much a blight on the game as the continuing refereeing incompetence.
The five points to zip picked up by the All Blacks means that the task awaiting the Boks if they want to get their hands on the trophy is a much tougher one during the home leg against the antipodean nations than many people immediately realised after the game. The four point advantage currently enjoyed by New Zealand at the top of the log will become five with one to play if they win easily against Argentina in Argentina, as they did last year, and the Boks fail to do the same against the Wallabies at Newlands earlier in the day.
The Boks will of course start as overwhelming favourites to win the Cape Town clash, but the city is still experiencing late winter rains, and even if it is not wet on the day the underfoot conditions could be heavy. That means that scoring four tries might not be the gimme that it would have been on the harder and drier surfaces of the Highveld.
And even if the Boks do score four tries and win at Newlands, if the All Blacks do the same against the Pumas, it will mean the four point deficit remains in place for Jean de Villiers’ men – and that will mean them going to Ellis Park for the decider at the beginning of October needing to do more than just win against the Kiwis. They will need to either win with a four try bonus point or win by more than seven, something that brings additional burden against the world’s best team.
It wouldn’t have been like that had it not been for Poite’s impact on the Eden Park contest, and the All Blacks had thus walked away with just four log points, thus meaning a three point lead at this point – or two if the Boks had lost by less than seven.
But the Poite mistake, like the Bryce Lawrence freak show at the 2011 World Cup, can’t be reversed, so the Boks have to live with the fact that they don’t just need to win when next they play in just under a fortnight, they need to chase tries.
Should the Boks and All Blacks end up with the same number of points at the top of the log, the Boks would win the trophy as it stands as they have a +19 advantage on the Kiwis in points differential. But even that could change after the All Blacks visit Argentina.
It’s not all bleak for the Boks though. They did deliver one monster scrum early in the Auckland contest (while it was still allowed to be a contest) and they troubled the All Black lineout, plus Ellis Park is far more of a psychological barrier for the All Blacks to overcome than the calabash out at Soccer City, a venue which in comparison to the one at Doornfontein is far less intimidating for visiting teams.
There is history at Ellis Park when it comes to Bok/All Black clashes, plenty of it, and a win of the magnitude that Jake White’s team scored there in 2004 (42-26) would probably be enough to see the Boks to the title.
The All Blacks will travel to South Africa without both Carter and their captain Richie McCaw, and while the replacements did well at Eden Park, they will find playing in Johannesburg a whole different experience. There wasn’t enough dominance from New Zealand in the 15 versus 14 match to suggest they should start at Ellis Park as favourites.
And neither was there enough in Australia’s face-saving win over Argentina in Perth this past weekend to suggest the South African’s should be quaking in their boots ahead of the immediate challenge in Cape Town. Nic White played well for the Wallabies so there is a decision to be made at scrumhalf by Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie, and his forwards were more physical than they have been, but in the second half the scrum again disintegrated.
You need to be able to scrum against the Springboks to be able to compete with them, and two weeks really isn’t enough time for McKenzie, himself a former Wallaby front-ranker, to sort out the problems there. And after the disappointment of Eden Park, the Boks will be up for it, keenly so - you can have no doubt about that.