ANALYSIS: Ian Foster’s coaching tenure now hangs by a slender thread after his All Blacks proved patently ill-equipped to handle a superb display of high-intensity rugby from the world champion Springboks in Mbombela early Sunday (NZT).
The South Africans started and all-but finished this Rugby Championship opener, in front of a passionate, seething crowd of over 43,000 at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, with players being driven off the field in medi-carts, but in between they applied a massive knockout blow to these reeling All Blacks with a 26-10 victory that was every bit as one-sided as it sounds.
It is no disgrace to lose to a side of the calibre of this South African outfit. Plenty have over the years, and plenty more will too in days to come. But to go down so decisively, and largely fail to apply anything resembling sustained pressure on their opponents for so much of this one-sided contest, well, it spoke to how far this All Blacks side has plunged.
They have now lost five of their last six tests, and three of four for the calendar year, and with these beastly Boks to come again next week at their Ellis Park citadel, it is impossible to imagine that the loss column doesn’t get another tick in it next week. With it, Foster’s tenure will surely be over, and someone more equipped to lead this struggling side brought in.
Scott Robertson, anyone?
This was a limited, painful and at times gormless performance from an All Blacks side that has completely lost its mojo, its confidence, its rhythm and, to be frank, its wherewithal.
They scrambled a try at the death, via a Caleb Clarke breakout and a Shannon Frizell reach-out in the corner, but it was otherwise all the Springboks on an evening where they lit up in neon why they are among the cast-iron contenders once again for next year’s World Cup.
The All Blacks, on the evidence of this, do not deserve to even be in the conversation. It is a long, long way back from this pit of despair, and time is fast running out.
Credit, first, to the South Africans. Pressure turns rocks into diamonds, and it also converts Springbok rugby players into world-beaters. Their high kick and chase game is predictable, but so damned effective that it seems to have the All Blacks tied up in knots. Only Kurt-Lee Arandse’s mindless 75th-minute cleanout of Beauden Barrett in the air that earned the easiest red card in the book was a blot on that copybook.
But the pressure came also at scrum time, with that swift defensive line that kept knocking over All Blacks behind the advantage line, and with their muscular carries and dominance of the breakdown. This was a comprehensive display from a side that is not just comfortable in its skin, but plays out of it on the big occasions.
The All Blacks, on the other hand, spent the vast majority of the match on the back foot, throwing hopeful, rather than purposeful, passes and failing abysmally to retain possession and achieve the go-forward required to establish the momentum to trouble these brutal Boks.
The penalties came thick and fast at scrum time, as did the errors with ball in hand, and the All Blacks failed terribly in getting anythign resembling go-forward ball to their danger runners Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Will Jordan.
Jordan made but one decent run, Ioane was blunted throughout and Clarke only got into the game when it was too late. Ardie Savea toiled up front, but even he failed to find the go-forward that was a feature of his July series.
The All Blacks actually did well to hang in there down just seven (10-3) at the break after a messy first half. There were moments of promise, such as when Beauden Barrett sparked a breakout from his ingoal, but just as things looked like opening up, Akira Ioane threw a horrible infield pass to halt the move in its tracks.
It was that sort of a first 40 for the men in black. Just when something looked to be brewing, an error would come, or a penalty, or a turnover.
The Boks weren’t a heck of a lot better, but their aggression on the carry, high ball chase and scrum superiority enabled them to create easily the more clear-cut chances.
That they only converted an eighth-minute try to wing Arendse, when Beauden Barrett couldn’t field a high ball, said as much about the quality of the All Blacks’ defence (they missed just four of 71 tackles) as it did any Boks inadequacies.
But there was to be no storring comeback. Handre Pollard put the Boks out of reach, and litw as notable the match finished with the All Blacks miscuing with ball in hand and gifting a try at the death that sent the big crowd into celebration mode.