It was a classic case of “he who dares wins” when the All Blacks overcame first quarter jitters to open their Rugby World Cup campaign in Japan with a thrilling 23-13 win against South Africa.
Seventeen of those points were posted in a second quarter blink of an eye with Beauden Barrett sprinting through a narrow gap to provide George Bridge’s try under the posts and Anton Lienert-Brown splitting the Boks defence apart for Scott Barrett to gallop 40 metres for the second touchdown.
Add a Richie Mo’unga penalty and the All Blacks led 17-3 at half-time, having broken the fierce, robust Boks’ early stranglehold when the fumbling champions treated the ball like a hot potato.
Full marks to selectors Steve Hansen, Grant Fox and Ian Foster for sticking with the Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett twin playmaking roles at first-five and fullback respectively.
Both were simply too good not to start – Mo’unga’s crosskicks to lively right wing Sevu Reece sparking sharp attacks and Barrett’s lightning thrusts out wide causing havoc.
There were other heroes, notably workaholic Scott Barrett who filled the big boots of the injured Brodie Retallick beyond everyone’s expectation and Ardie Savea who has become a fast and furious superstar.
It was skipper Kieran Read whose firm chat calmed his players down after their nervous start and halfback Aaron Smith added an improved kicking game to his slick passing.
While critics continue to criticise the muscular Boks for relying too much on their kicking game and physicality, they remain dangerous foes who cannot be under-estimated once they graduate from pool play.
Nevertheless, this was a timely psychological victory for the All Blacks and masterly head coach Hansen who has a happy knack of peaking his players when it counts most.
Not that it was perfect. The scrum buckled when the starting front row of Joe Moody, Dane Coles and Nepo Laulala was replaced and there was some wonky throwing to the lineout.
However there were also some wonderful moments, especially when Beaudy Barrett, Savea and Reece were in full flight – and some great tackling, none better than Mo’unga’s try-saver against little crackerjack wing Cheslin Kolbe.
Full praise also to defence coach Scott McLeod who has done a good job since taking over the role of former maestro Wayne Smith. As backs coach, Foster also deserves credit although his Super Rugby history with the Chiefs wasn’t flash before Dave Rennie taught them how to win.
The coaches would also have been relieved Sonny Bill Williams survived his second half stint and played solidly upon replacing the ever reliable Ryan Crotty.
With Ireland and Scotland favoured to qualify from Pool A they should play South Africa and New Zealand respectively in the quarter-finals provided Japan don’t upset the Scots on October 13.
Ireland have started strongly with a 27-3 triumph over Scotland and England and France look favourites to graduate from Pool C. However England’s 35-3 win against Tonga didn’t set the Thames on fire compared with the All Blacks 93-7 pre-tournament walloping of the same opponents.
Hopefully the All Blacks will stick with their “ he who dares wins” philosophy that has won them the Webb Ellis Trophy a record three times.
Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer.