Wherever you were last night, the chances of having a conversation about the test this morning at Ellis Park were high. The chances of it being one completely writing off the All Blacks’ chances were even higher.
It was a very, very rare situation for New Zealand rugby fans – resigning themselves to a loss before a test had even kicked off. Someone even went and put fifty grand on the Springboks at the TAB.
Which makes the eventual 35-23 victory to the All Blacks just that much more remarkable. Written off by everyone at home and abroad, they went and pulled off one of the great and unique upsets of all time. Not only that, they did it by somehow reclaiming their identity and getting one over their old rivals within the space of a week.
After six straight tests of giving their opposition a leg up by not starting to play until well into the first halves, the All Blacks dominated the opening stages. It was amazing, exhilarating to see them fly into rucks and make line breaks. It was obvious something had changed dramatically when Ardie Savea nonchalantly caught a cross kick and almost scored after running half the length of the field.
Remember, this was a team that took almost 15 minutes last weekend to even touch the ball, let alone do anything with it. There was a clear emphasis on disrupting the Springbok breakdown that was badly missed in Mbombela, as well as a much more effective collection of the expected aerial bombardment from Jaden Hendrikse and Handre Pollard.
They got some help, that is without doubt. The Bok selection of Joseph Dweba to start at hooker ahead of Malcolm Marx badly backfired, with Dweba clearly wasting the time he should have practicing his lineout throws lifting weights in the gym. The wobbly Bok set piece gave the All Blacks everything they needed to set up a solid period of possession and territory. While they didn’t score any points until the 25 minute mark, it became clear that the longer it lasted, the more brittle the Boks were becoming.
In a perfect world, Sam Cane’s try would have been at the end of the test rather than during the tense first half, but it’s unlikely the under-fire All Black captain cares one bit. It was a classic All Black try, built on pressure and skill, then followed up by Samisoni Taukei’aho’s power effort only five minutes later.
This was what All Black fans had been screaming out for: earning the right to score, backing it up with sustained pressure and simply looking like an All Black team again. Not long into the second half it felt like it wouldn’t matter particularly much what the result would be. The heart, the passion and effort was evident from everyone on the field.
Not everything was perfect. The situation that led to Beauden Barrett’s yellow card and the Boks briefly taking the lead was disastrous and a direct result of poor decision-making in the 22, of which it wasn’t the only example.
But plenty of players answered their critics. Rieko Ioane and David Havili were outstanding, as were the three Barrett brothers. Samuel Whitelock reproduced the form that he showed in the Super Rugby final, while Cane had his best test di lui in quite some time.
The weight of expectation is something that is talked about a lot with regards to the All Blacks, but this week saw that flipped on its head. No one thought the All Blacks had a chance at the cauldron of South African rugby against an in-form Springbok team. This win was exactly what was needed, because they’ve proven that what makes the All Blacks who they are is still very much pulsing through this team’s veins.
There was one interesting post script, though. All the talk about the players has paled in comparison to that of Ian Foster and what his future is after this week. When asked about it on the Ellis Park turf, while behind him his team did a lap of honor, he simply replied “I don’t know”.
Out of all the things that come out of this intense test match, that might be the most telling.