THE Lions produced great drama and some entertaining rugby in Australia this summer, but all true rugby aficionados were glued to yesterday’s international which saw the 86th meeting between what are traditionally the two best teams in world rugby.
The All Blacks and the Springboks have a long and occasionally bitter rivalry and yesterday’s clash had some added spice since the winner would emerge with the coveted No.1 spot in the IRB rankings. The All Blacks hold that honour and never looked like giving it up.
This game was billed as a clash of rugby philosophies, the muscular and direct approach of the Springboks against the skill, speed and intelligence of the All Blacks but the titanic clash of cultures never materialised. It was a full-blooded affair with intensity and injuries galore but too one-sided to be a true classic.
Sadly, the referee had a bigger say in events than any individual player with the possible exception of the Boks’ hooker Bismarck du Plessis who was red-carded, for a second yellow offence, two minutes into the second half. South Africa have not won at Eden Park since 1937 and they were never going to do so with 14 men.
The Springboks ended the match with one more man than the Kiwis, who lost Kieran Read and Ma’a Nonu to yellow cards in the final ten minutes, and Patrick Lambie managed a late try but the clock was always against any fightback.
Du Plessis can count himself a little unlucky. His second offence was raising an elbow into Liam Messam’s throat, which may have merited a card. His first-half tackle on stand-off Dan Carter, which put the Kiwi out of action with a shoulder injury, was, however, textbook. It was shoulder high, legal and replays clearly showed that he wrapped his arms around Carter. French referee Romain Poite is arguably the best in the world but gave one of his worst Test performances yesterday.
Bismarck du Plessis was the Springboks’ best player when he was on the field but his brother Jannie was undoubtedly the worst. The tighthead prop gave up a penalty at the set scrum, missed two tackles in the build-up to Brodie Retallick’s first-half try and he failed to stop All Blacks’ skipper Read from grabbing his second score early in the second half.
Already missing Richie McCaw, the All Blacks lost Carter in the first half and full-back Israel Dagg failed to re-appear after half-time. Still the home team didn’t miss a beat. Beauden Barrett stepped into Carter’s shoes and, while New Zealand’s glaring weakness at the 2011 World Cup was a lack of back up for their world-class playmaker, Barrett looks the part.