It was typical of the British weather to arrive after the European teams had been knocked out of the World Cup. The result was a hard, uncompromising wrestling bout that was more Six Nations than Rugby Championship, the holders finding a way of winning ugly and keeping alive their ambition of becoming the first side to retain the trophy.
South Africa started by throwing the ball around and the centre Jesse Kriel made the first clean break of the match. Spotting that Ma’a Nonu had been checked by the presence of Willie le Roux, Kriel stepped inside the hooker Dane Coles to leave the All Blacks scrambling. But it was not an indication they thought they could beat New Zealand at their open game.
It was not long before the kicks went up in the air. Bryan Habana on South Africa’s left wing was hardly much bigger than his opposite number, Nehe Milner-Skudder, but he had considerably more experience and won two duels in the opening quarter. But where the Springboks controlled the game in the opening half was at the breakdown where they so confounded their opponents by competing and dispossessing that the All Blacks became confused and made poor mistakes under pressure.
New Zealand are habitual problem-solvers, but as their head coach, Steve Hansen, looked on in disdain his players conceded a rash of penalties, nine in the opening period, that allowed South Africa to overcome the early try they conceded to the flanker Jerome Kaino – one of the few times the All Blacks’ forwards and backs combined with precision – and lead 12-7 at the break.
The holders were back on the pitch for the second half early, taking the opportunity to practise their passing and handling as the rain fell, probably relieved to be out of hearing distance from Hansen.
It was a semi-final between the two most successful countries in the history of the game by some way, but the Springboks settled into the role of underdogs, forcing errors through hustling and hounding while maintaining discipline. New Zealand fell back on what they knew worked, but when Nonu set off on a straight run from a scrum on 25 minutes, he was quickly hauled to the ground and Francois Louw forced the centre to hold on to the ball and concede a penalty.
South Africa did not look like scoring a try, apart from an interception by JP Pietersen from his own 22 which was halted after a few strides by the referee who was playing advantage for the All Blacks – although he ended up awarding the penalty to the Springboks after the New Zealand prop Joe Moody was detected performing a neck roll. But the conditions suggested a low-scoring game and, by forcing penalties at the breakdown, the Springboks had the means to turn position into points.
They were having to make many more tackles than New Zealand and there were signs that the exertion was having an impact, forwards taking longer to get to a set piece, but the All Blacks were tired in the mind, for once baffled and unable to establish a grip. Their sense of discomfiture and disarray was highlighted by Kaino who was sent to the sin-bin two minutes from the break for cynically kicking the ball from the wrong side of a ruck as he dawdled back into position.
It had looked so different at the start of the half when Moody stepped into space and when New Zealand moved the ball to the right, Sam Whitelock held on to the ball long enough to make Habana regret his decision to race out of the line. Richie McCaw flicked the ball on to Kaino and with Habana not at home, Lood de Jager failed to get across in time.
South Africa had taken the lead after three minutes with a Handre Pollard penalty after Kieran Read, setting the tone for the half, entered a ruck from the side. The Springboks responded to Kaino’s try but sending the ball higher and hitting the rucks hard through their back row. McCaw was the next to be penalised and when Nonu went off his feet at the end of the first quarter Pollard regained the lead.
Dan Carter, who was to go on and become the first player to score 100 points in international rugby here, hit the post after 32 minutes and South Africa were the quicker to react to the bouncing ball.
It summed up what had gone on before, but the shortened interval break helped New Zealand find their focus. They may have been a man down, but they came at South Africa in waves and Carter dropped a goal from 40 metres after South Africa’s line speed in defence had forced a retreat behind the gainline.
Milner-Skudder had made some tackle-braking runs, but it was an evening for the boot rather than the foot and Hansen brought on Beauden Barrett, a fly-half by trade. His first touch was a chip in behind the defence and his second was to stay on the left wing while Nonu drew the defence following a series of attacks and score in the corner.
When Habana was sent to the sin-bin for a cynical foul in the buildup, it looked uphill for South Africa with 30 minutes to go but still they ploughed on in their straight line, Pollard and Pat Lambie kicking penalties to Carter’s one, still scrapping at the breakdown and relishing the scrum in true Six Nations fashion.
But the first hour took its toll and when their final attack ended with a turnover six minutes from time, there was no coming back.