THE All Blacks completed a clean sweep of the Rugby Championship while the Springboks restored pride in their jersey in one of the great Test matches at Newlands.
New Zealand held on to win 25-24 in Cape Town, their sixth straight victory in the tournament, in a completely different contest to South Africa’s previous 57-0 embarrassment at North Harbour.
The old rivals scored three tries apiece in a brutal yet breathtaking Test, proving there is no such thing as a dead rubber between two proud rugby nations.
New Zealand had already sealed the Rugby Championship yet named their strongest possible lineup, and Steve Hansen’s decision was well and truly vindicated as South Africa threw absolutely everything at the world champions.
Ryan Crotty scored the opening try for New Zealand, a contentious score as the centre did not appear to ground the ball cleanly in the 32nd minute.
But after lengthy consultation between referee Jerome Garces and TMO Rowan Kitt, the try was awarded.
The All Blacks led 8-3 after an extraordinary first half which went for 50 minutes.
Boks halfback Ross Cronje was next to strike in the second term, planting the ball against the post before Kiwi winger Rieko Ioane pounced on a South African error to scorch away in the 60th minute and restore the visitors’ lead.
South Africa five-eighth Handre Pollard was introduced with immediate dividents, popping a classy offload to man of the match Malcolm Marx who in turn provided a try assist for Jean-Luc du Preez.
New Zealand super-sub David Havili responded in kind with a lovely flick pass for Damian McKenzie, the little magician who stood up his defender for a wondrous try.
It looked like game over in the 76th minute, when South African substitute Damian de Allende was harshly red carded for a late hit on Lima Sopoaga.
It was a yellow at worst and Sopoaga put the All Blacks eight points clear with the penalty.
Marx — who had one of the all-time great Test matches and was a terror at the breakdown — gave the hosts a glimmer of hope when he barged over in the 79th minute but, as they have done so often, the All Blacks held their nerve and hung on.
It was a stirring spectacle and a great advertisement for day-time rugby, with the only dampener being another shoulder injury to Nehe Milner-Skudder.
The little Kiwi winger was having an excellent game before his right shoulder popped out and it appears the Hurricanes flyer is set for another extended spell on the sidelines.
Playmakers Beauden Barrett and Pollard also left the field with head injury assessments, with Barrett sitting out the entire second half.
New Zealand’s next fixture is the third Bledisloe Cup Test in Brisbane.
Both teams threw everything into that Test match and what a place to play, at Newlands.
We knew that was going to be the case, them at home, a bit of adversity from their point of view, from last time.
Everyone was giving them a bit of crap throughout the week so we knew it was going to happen.
Our guys will learn from it but when you’re in those situation, you’ve got to remain as calm as you can and I think the boys did enough.
I wasn’t worried, I thought we lacked a bit of energy early and that kept us there for the rest of the game.
But we know this team has got heart and character and when we needed to keep our minds on the job and step up, we did that.
Really happy with the likes of Damo (McKenzie) and even Havili when he came on — fantastic, just to give us a bit of impetus when we needed it.
It’s a full squad game now and we trust those boys to get on the field.
You’ve got to give a lot of credit to those guys who don’t get out there every week.
They prepare us throughout the week and make sure we’re on task for Saturday.
It was a great Test match and it was great to see South Africa not disappoint us.
And they never do when we come over here, they always front up and give us a heck of a game.
Our guys are going to walk away with more learning and people back home should be extremely proud of them because they showed a lot of character tonight.
Patrick (Tuipulotu) came on and showed some physicality, Matt Todd, so pretty happy with everyone that came off the bench.
It’s really pleasing because you’ve got two young guys (McKenzie and Havili) who are going to take a bucketload of confidence out of being under extreme pressure, to then come out and know that they can do things and do things well.
It’s another good year for us in this competition and we’ve got a lot of people who aren’t here so we’ve developed a lot of talent and had some experiences that will only make us stronger.
But still, we played against the best team in the world and we’ve made unbelievable strides.
We’ve embarked on a journey this year, mapped out processes and this is the result of it.
Coming from 57-0 two weeks ago, to lose by one point and draw against Australia, it shows the character of the side and the players.
We’ve been putting pressure on the team in all departments, at set phase, breakdown and in defence — even with the kicking game, the contestables.
Again a bit unlucky sometimes, the bounce didn’t really favour us and the rub of the green is still not there.