New Zealand send warning to rivals with clinical World Cup victory over South Africa
If it really suits Steve Hansen to have people think New Zealand's bid for a Rugby World Cup three-peat is built on shakier than usual foundations, then the head coach will have left Yokohama a happy man that his side remain just a tick below the level of red-hot favourites to which they've become accustomed.
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The All Blacks were demonstrably better than another of the multitude of fancied contenders and yet their 23-10 win over the Springboks still left the sold-out crowd feeling like there was still more to come.
In a game red-ringed on rugby calendars for a two and a half years, an opening weekend clash between the two greatest rivals in the sport figured to clear a murky picture of rugby's world order somewhat. Instead we know little more than who is likely to top pool B and who is likely to play the winners of Ireland's. The game was of a quality that it would be no surprise to know the eventual winner of this tournament was on the field, yet will also have offered opposing coaches, Joe Schmidt among them, reasons to believe that the pair are not at an unreachable standard.
New Zealand did the vast majority of their damage in just three and a half minutes of the opening 40, but otherwise showed only in flashes. South Africa started the better, and rallied from what seemed like an All Black sucker punch but their best attacks were produced by the something-from-nothing spark of the outstanding Cheslin Kolbe.
Under the circumstances, they could afford little else but Rassie Erasmus's Boks had dominated the opening exchanges, from the thunderous breakdown work of Siya Kolisi and Pieter Steph du Toit, to the roving threat posed by Willie Le Roux, they looked every inch a contender to the throne. The All Blacks, given little room to operate, seemed rattled. The Springboks system affords the opposition space outside, but the effectiveness of their work in the more narrow exchanges left it impossible to reach. Errors from New Zealand were regular, South Africa's dominance of territory eye-catching.
After a first quarter that zipped by, they led by three and should have done so by twice the margin.
Prop Steven Kitschoff won a breakdown penalty after two mintues which Handre Pollard stuck accurately from distance but when the same man had another more straight forward opportunity his effort came back off the post.
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While they've felt more infallible during this cycle though, the back-to-back champs again proved that they only need a sniff.
A Faf de Klerk pass found green grass rather than a green jersey and Richie Mo'unga reacted the fastest. Makazole Mapimpi's efforts to deny him the try brought a penalty to level things, seconds later the All Blacks were ahead.
As New Zealand finally found the frequency on their kicking radar, Mo'unga's inventive crossfield effort found a way to exploit the acres on offer down the touchline. Sevu Reece gathered and a few phases later, Beauden Barrett's offload from the tackle left George Bridge with work to do but he gathered well and slide across the whitewash. When Pollard struggled under the high ball soon after, Anton Leinart-Brown's run against the grain created the space for Scott Barrett running off his shoulder.
A clinical 17-point blitz. Half the world away, those searching for comfort in the familiar found it. While Fiji's razzle-dazzle and France's flakiness earlier in the day had offered compelling arguments, is there anything more ingrained in a rugby country's DNA than the Kiwi ability to turn a game on its head in the time it takes to boil a kettle? World Cups are won by such flashes, and we've waxed lyrical about New Zealand's clincal edge for years, but will another Webb Ellis trophy require something closer to an 80-minute showing?
Having seemed like they'd punched themselves out, South Africa found a second-wind after the restart and bring it quickly back within a score. Kolbe's thwarted attempt to wrap up the try of the tournament on day two not counting for nought after, Beauden Barrett tried to play out from the shadow of his own posts and, Pieter-Steph du Toit barged over soon after.
A stolen line-out piggy-backed onto a penalty before Handre Pollard's drop goal cut the deficit further still.
With 15 minutes remaining, Kieran Read pointed to the posts when awarded a penalty and Mo'unga again showed his worth to this side as a goal-kicker by bisecting the uprights.
That was to be his last act, replaced by Ben Smith soon after but Beauden Barrett filled in capably when called upon to knock over a straightforward penalty.
There was still time for Kolbe to go on one last electrifying run but in the end matters remained 23-10, the largest margin of victory between these two sides since 2017.
To have a better idea of whether one, neither, or both of these sides will be back here in six weeks' time, however, requires a longer wait.
NEW ZEALAND: B Barrett, S Reece, A Lienert-Brown, R Crotty, G Bridge; R Mo'unga, A Smith; J Moody, D Coles, N Laulala; S Whitelock, S Barrett; A Savea, S Cane, K Read (C)
REPLACEMENTS: C Taylor (for Coles, 40) Patrick Tuipulotu (for Cane, 40) SB Williams (for R Crotty, 50) O Tuungafasi (for Moody, 50), A Ta'avao (for Laulala, 50) TJ Perenara (for A Smith, 61) B Smith (for Mo'unga, 77) S Frizzell (for S Barrett, 75)
SOUTH AFRICA:W Le Roux; C Kolbe, L Am, D de Allende, M Mapimpi; H Pollard, F de Klerk; S Kitschoff, M Marx, F Malherbe; E Etzebeth, F Mostert; S Kolisi (C), PS du Toit, D Vermeulen.
REPLACEMENTS: F Louw (for Kolisi, 50) T Nyakane (for Malherbe, 54), J Kriel (for Am, 54), B Mbonambi (for Marx, 61), T Mtawarira (for Kitschoff, 66) RG Snyman (for Etzebeth, 70), H Jantjies ( for de Klerk, 71)
REFEREE: J GARCES
MAN OF THE MATCH: B BARRETT (NZ)
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