YOKOHAMA – Two-time defending Rugby World Cup champion New Zealand sent an ominous warning to its 2019 title rivals with a 23-13 win over much-fancied South Africa in its tournament opener on Saturday.
The All Blacks went into the game at International Stadium Yokohama with some suggesting that their record of never having lost a pool-stage match in World Cup history could be ended by the Springboks, but two tries in a barnstorming three-minute first-half spell put New Zealand firmly in control.
South Africa came out fighting in the second half, and a try from Pieter-Steph du Toit and a drop goal from Handre Pollard reduced the deficit to four points at one stage.
But the All Blacks calmly restored order to close the game out with the win, reminding every other team in the tournament that the defending champions will not give up their crown easily.
“We won, so you’ve got to be happy with that,” said New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen. “Were we perfect? No. But you’re never going to be at this stage of the tournament. That was the interesting part of this game, for both teams. You arrive here and you’re not in the swing of the tournament, and right from the get-go you’ve got the biggest game possibly of the group.
“We’ve come out on top of it. We’re very happy that we did, but there’s plenty of stuff we can work on. The boys showed a lot of fortitude. We didn’t get many chances but we took them.”
A crowd of 63,649 was treated to a largely clinical performance from New Zealand, with Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga forming a two-pronged attack and George Bridge and Scott Barrett scoring well-taken tries.
But South Africa will also draw positives from its own performance, and head coach Rassie Erasmus will be hoping to meet the All Blacks again in Yokohama in the final on Nov. 2, despite no team in Rugby World Cup history having ever lifted the trophy after losing a pool game.
“I think they won it, I don’t think we lost it,” said Erasmus. “Two tries to one — they deserved to win the game. We conceded 11 penalties to two, and you will struggle to beat New Zealand like that. I think discipline was our biggest downfall, and then them scoring two tries to our one.
“If you are grouped with New Zealand in a pool, you’ve got a good chance of not going undefeated through your pool. Then you have to fight back and try to get to the final for the first time in history not being unbeaten. We have to go that route now.”
South Africa drew first blood when Pollard kicked a huge penalty from just inside the New Zealand half in the second minute, but the Springbok flyhalf was not so accurate from closer range when he hit the upright with a second attempt in the 19th minute.
South Africa’s bright start, however, quickly unraveled. First, scrumhalf Faf de Klerk’s errant pass was pounced on by Mo’unga, who almost made it as far as the posts until Makazole Mapimpi took him down illegally. Mo’unga got up and slotted home the penalty.
Then the All Blacks scored their first try of the evening, Beauden Barrett breaking through the line before releasing Bridge for the score, which Mo’unga converted.
New Zealand began to slice through the Springboks defense at will, and Scott Barrett added another try in the 27th minute after a sublime, barreling run from Anton Lienert-Brown.
But the Springboks came out for the second half with renewed purpose, and du Toit put South Africa right back in contention with a try in the 48th minute, brushing past Aaron Smith to dive over the line.
Pollard cut the gap to four points with a brilliantly taken drop goal in the 59th minute, but penalties from Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett extended New Zealand’s lead and the defending champions shut the game down to see out the win.
“Their defense was very strong throughout the whole game and they kept coming at us,” said New Zealand captain Kieran Reid. “We expected that from them. They’re a team that wants to apply pressure in attack.
“Discipline was always going to be a massive thing for us. South Africans always love to build pressure through those penalties, when you have a kicker like Pollard, who showed from the outset that he can kick from 50 meters. It was a conscious decision from us to make sure that we didn’t give away too many penalties.”