True rugby fans would have thrilled to the drama of Sunday’s tough Cape Town test won 25-24 by the All Blacks against a pugnacious South African team that bore no relation to that thrashed 57-0 at Albany a fortnight earlier.
Seldom is champion hooker Dane Coles bettered. However in this epic he was no match for dynamic Malcolm Marx who ran like a rampant rhino and exhibited tenacity and technique in consistently winning ball from the breakdowns.
Almost matching him for power running and work rate was ginger loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff and powerful skipper Eben Etzebeth who severely tested the brave New Zealand defence.
While it was the Springbok forwards who ruled the roost up front despite the best efforts of skipper Kieran Read, it was the All Blacks mighty midgets who provided the sharper attacking thrust.
Nehe Milner-Skudder with his dazzling sidestep and one glorious behind the back pass, was back to the form that made him a star at the 2015 World Cup before a series of injuries side-lined him for much of the past two years.
Unfortunately he suffered another shoulder dislocation which has ended his season and will likely see him missing much of next year’s Super Rugby championship. Such a pity for a popular 26-year-old whose wizardry makes a pleasing variation from the power game of so many fellow wings twice his size.
Another little whippet whose brave heart and audacious skill triumphs over menacing giants is 80kg Damian McKenzie, who wouldn’t have got a chance to show his class had Ben Smith not gone on sabbatical and Jordie Barrett not suffered a bad injury earlier in the year.
Coach Steve Hansen’s “flea in a bottle” description of McKenzie is a fair summary of a 22-year-old who takes audacious risks but, like Beauden Barrett, is a freakish game-breaker.
Fittingly, it was McKenzie’s lightning acceleration that reaped the winning try although the magnificent Marx replied with the final one for the hosts.
An even younger man is 20-year-old, 102kg wing Rieko Ioane who has emerged as another prolific try-scorer who has showcased the backline depth New Zealand possesses.
With the All Blacks happy to settle for a one-point win, this was a fair dinkum, heart and soul sporting contest in which there were no losers. Although it is an oft used phase I detest, rugby was the winner and it was great to see South African pride restored to its former glory.
The Boks have had their detractors and deservedly so judged on results since the 2015 World Cup. But let’s not forget the All Blacks had to battle hard for a 20-18 semi-final win against them before their classy 34-17 final against the Aussies.
While it was good to see Sonny Bill Williams defend strongly and run hard and straight, he has been given several chances this season to demonstrate his once magical ball distribution and has failed to deliver.
Compare that to the power game of Ngani Laumape that brought him 15 Super Rugby tries this season, but was rarely seen in the black jersey.
One of the success stories of 2016 was the cohesive midfield partnership of Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown which surpassed that of Williams and Crotty. But like Laumape’s 15 Super tries, that failed to offer the selectors enough food for thought.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author