South Africa have rocked the All Blacks’ hopes of wrapping up the Rugby Championship, with a famous 36-34 victory over the home side in Wellington.
The Springboks hadn’t beaten their old rivals since 2014 and had tasted success in New Zealand since 2009, suffering a couple of 50-point hidings in recent years.
But this performance showed they are still one of the real forces in world rugby and at least delayed a successful defence of the four-team tournament title.
The All Blacks enjoyed the statistical advantage across the park, but made too many big errors in the face of determined South African defence that scrambled and held solid, even in the final moments, as their opponents pushed for a late victory.
The home side started the better, running out to an early 12-0 advantage, through tries from fullback Jordie Barret and halfback Aaron Smith.
Smith’s try was the result of a breathtaking no-look pass from hooker Codie Taylor that found Ben Smith steaming outside at full speed, with his namesake running an inside support line.
If that sequence was breathtaking, New Zealand lost their advantage through a play that was breathtakingly awful.
First, Aphiwe Dyantyi snuck through the black defensive line put his side on the board.
The next try came from a miscued kick from Dyantyi that went into touch on the full. Attempting to maintain a high tempo, Jordie Barrett threw in quickly and long towards Rieko Ioane, but the throw fell well short of its mark.
Fullback Willie Le Roux simply scooped the ball up and ran unopposed to the try-line, with Handre Pollard converting for the lead.
Hooker Malcolm Marx went over the extend the margin and by half-time, South Africa led 24-17 – the most points ever score against the All Blacks in a first half on home soil.
New Zealand closed the gap with a Rieko Ioane’s first try just before the break, but then conceded a penalty that allowed the Springboks some extra breathing space in the dressing room.
Immediately after the restart, they plunged a dagger into All Blacks hearts, when replacement Cheslin Kolbe intercepted and ran 50 metres to score.
Their opponents began to claw back though with tries to Ioane and Taylor, before Le Roux was banished to the side-lines for 10 minutes. During his absence, Ardie Savea had a try that should have locked the scores up with seven minutes left – but Beauden Barrett hit the upright with the handy conversion.
In the final analysis, that was a telling stat – the All Blacks still outscored their rivals six tries to five, but Barrett converted only two and Pollard missed only once.
Over the closing stages, they pounded away at the Springboks line, searching for the winning points. With a scrum under the posts, a drop goal was definitely an option, but they backed themselve to score a try and almost succeeded.
With the last possession of the game, the ball spun right and as Damian McKenzie seemed set to put Ben Smith over, it was knocked out of his grasp and the opportunity vanished.
“You’ve got to give them all the credit in the world, the way they defended that second half,” said All Blacks captain Kieran Read afterwards. “We threw everything at them.
“We came off the line and really put our skills under pressure. They scrambled well as well, once we got around them – we’ll give them that credit.”
South Africa entered the match on the back of successive defeats to Argentina and Australia, but now take some confidence into their remaining home encounters against the Wallabies and All Blacks.
“We’re very happy for what happened today,” said captain Siya Kolisi. “It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the boys, and I think the way we prepared ourselves this week and really believed in ourselves and worked hard, I can’t say enough.
“Our main thing is effort with our team. We’ve let ourselves down in the past couple of games, but I think we showed what we can do.
“We haven’t achieved much yet and we have to make sure we build on what we started tonight.”
The Rugby Championship has a bye week, before resuming with the Springboks hosting Australia at Port Elizabeth and New Zealand visiting Argentina at Buenos Aires, both on September 30.
Seven days later, South Africa and the All Blacks meet at Pretoria.
Jordie Barrett, Aaron Smith, Codie Taylor & Ardie Savea tries; Beauden Barrett two conversions)