WELLINGTON – South Africa pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Rugby Championship on Saturday, holding on under enormous pressure to beat New Zealand 36-34.
Given almost no chance of winning after losing their last two championship matches — and 11 of their last 12 tests against the All Blacks, including the last six in succession — the Springboks found new spirit in attack and defense to win in New Zealand for the first time since 2009.
South Africa trailed 12-0 after only 16 minutes with the All Blacks entirely dominant. But the Springboks rallied magnificently to lead 24-17 at halftime and 29-17 only a minute into the second half. The All Blacks had never previously conceded 24 points in the first half of a test at home.
New Zealand fought back — as was expected of the world champions — and could have drawn level at 31-31 in the 74th minute. But flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who kicked only two of seven attempts on the night, missed the conversion of a try from Ardie Savea.
The All Blacks continued to fight into injury time to snatch back the match and looked likely to score until Damian McKenzie dropped a pass under pressure and referee Nigel Owens blew the fulltime whistle.
The Springboks reacted with understandable jubilation at having ground out a victory in an epic test match that fully rekindled the rivalry between the teams. All Blacks captain Kieran Read suggested on the eve of the match that the rivalry had faded because of the All Blacks’ superiority in recent years, strongly suggesting that South Africa was no long New Zealand’s greatest foe.
The Springboks, whose coach Rassie Erasmus even forecast his own dismissal if South Africa lost on Saturday, disproved Read’s assertion with a performance of historic significance.
The Springboks outplayed the All Blacks in almost all areas, most importantly in their defensive performance which, despite conceding six tries, was the rock on which victory was based.
The Springboks had shown little sign in last weekend’s 23-18 loss to Australia, which featured a tryless second half, that they had the attacking ability they showed on Saturday. But they were willing to take on the All Blacks out wide and they did so well with winger Aphiwe Dyantyi scoring two tries.
“We didn’t do anything differently today,” captain Siya Kolisi said. “It’s just the belief and backing the guy next to you.”
New Zealand opened in its usual high-paced style and scored tries through fullback Jordie Barrett and scrumhalf Aaron Smith, both created by breaks by fullback Ben Smith. The hosts allowed that beginning to fan their sense of over-confidence and they seemed unprepared for the Springbok fightback when it came.
Dyantyi scored his first try in the 20th and the All Blacks were shocked when fullback Willie Le Roux touched down to give South Africa a 14-12 lead five minutes later. South Africa didn’t concede the lead for the remainder of the match, no matter how hard the All Blacks worked to break them down.
All Blacks winger Rieko Ioane scored the first of his two tries two minutes before halftime and a traditional All Blacks rally seemed likely.
But the Springboks struck again immediately after the break when replacement winger Cheslin Kolbe, a halftime replacement, snatched an intercept and scored with his first touch of the match.
Ioane scored again and many New Zealand fans expected the Springboks to fade in the last 20 minutes. But Dyantyi scored again from a superb wide pass by Elton Jantjies, who was introduced as a replacement in a bold call by Erasmus.
The All Blacks turned the Springboks’ favorite weapon, the lineout drive, against them and scored by that method through Codie Taylor and Savea late in the match. But Barrett’s errant boot cost them the chance to seize a draw.
New Zealand was still attacking when the fulltime siren sounded and continued to do so deep into injury time. Le Roux was sin-binned, putting more pressure on the beleaguered defense, but even then it refused to yield.
“You’ve got to give them all the credit in the world for the way they defended in the second half,” Read said. “We threw everything at them.”