Cape Town – It will be some time before South Africa can again
question the All Blacks’ ability to perform at high altitude ... supposedly a
factor that is deemed worth a few extra points to the Springboks.
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VIDEO: Jet flies over Ellis Park
GALLERY: Springboks v All Blacks
Such vulnerability may well still apply to several Bok foes,
particularly those from northern climes.
But clearly routine exposure -- both through ever-expanding Super
Rugby and to a lesser extent Test matches -- to Highveld conditions is paying
dividends for the cream of New Zealand’s players, both physically and now
almost certainly psychologically as well.
For the record, the world champions have won all of their
last three matches in Johannesburg, including the two prior to Saturday’s Ellis
Park thriller that were staged at FNB Stadium in 2012 (32-16) and 2010 (29-22).
On both those occasions, the All Blacks particularly
excelled deep in the more taxing second half – remember Richie McCaw’s 77th
minute try and Israel Dagg’s real party-spoiler in the 79th to wipe
out the host nation’s so promising lead until then in the 2010 clash?
Then two years later the New Zealanders’ second wind was
again a decisive factor: they had actually trailed 16-12 at the break but
registered 20 unanswered second-half points to romp to a bonus-point triumph.
They were last beaten at altitude in Bloemfontein, also some
1 400 metres above sea level, in 2009, the height of the Heinrich Brussow era
of open-side destructiveness for SA and a year when the Boks last went on to
claim the Tri-Nations title.
If ever there had seemed a feasible opportunity to venture that
the All Blacks would be the likelier ones to run out of puff in the potentially
key closing stages of a match, it was Saturday’s, which started at a murderous pace
and pretty much stayed that way for the duration.
As mentioned in a previous assessment of the massively
entertaining game, it is worth remembering, even through the domestic haze of
bitter disappointment, just how brightly prospects of a Bok triumph – yes, even
one with the required full-house job – flickered almost on the hour mark.
It was then that Jean de Villiers registered the morale-boosting
fourth Bok try, which also gave his team the lead back at 27-24 in the
ding-dong tussle: at that stage the All Blacks had only got three of their
eventual five, so “Mission Impossible” for South Africa appeared very much on.
The more optimistic of Bok supporters were perfectly
entitled at that point, frankly, to even wonder whether the floodgates might
open and their beloved outfit put the game to bed in a most compelling way.
A much-capped former Springbok, Ollie le Roux, had tweeted
with what appeared pretty good reason just a little earlier: “Test match rugby
at its best, both teams have come to play ... if Boks can keep it up the AB
forwards are going to lose steam after 70 minutes.”
It is history now that the All Blacks did anything but fall
apart, swiftly countering with Beauden Barrett’s try (their fourth, to
delightedly secure the Castle Rugby Championship title) and then another to ram
home their advantage as the Boks gradually lost their lustre – South Africa were
grimly defending their own line, too, when the final whistle went.
Apart from the lessons provided in skills terms and team
composure, New Zealand’s victory was also one for astounding and uncomfortably
In short, they had more left in the tank, despite the
lung-busting altitude and also the fact that they had travelled through
formidable time zones from Argentina for the fixture – this had been listed as
another reason to believe the Boks might win on the day.
Significantly, while mostly painting a bright picture for
Bok progress over the next few months and years, former All Blacks coach John
Mitchell did temper his thoughts in the SuperSport studio by charging that the
Springboks “need to get leaner”.
He was suggesting, very clearly, that superior beef in the
engine room doesn’t necessarily translate to greater effectiveness over the
course of 80 gruelling minutes against the wily All Blacks, particularly on
fast-paced pitches like the Ellis Park one.
Cerebral, Tri-Nations-winning former Bok coach Nick Mallett
agreed, saying that the Boks will be better served once young tight forwards
like Pieter-Steph du Toit and Frans Malherbe, who crucially combine power with
mobility and a good work ethic, are gradually eased into to the match-day mix.
Fitness is just one aspect current coach Heyneke Meyer may
have to chew on – and he is no closed-minded individual to constructive
criticism of his charges or own philosophy – in the aftermath of another New
Zealand etching on the Championship trophy ...
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