One of the more off-beat talking points to emerge from Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash between the Springboks and All Blacks at Newlands was the 50-minute first half.
With the Boks 8-3 down having put in a colossal defensive effort in the first period, fullback Andries Coetzee looked to put the ball out just after the hooter had gone.
Instead, he failed to find touch, and that moment set up what would be an additional 10 minutes of first half action as neither side was prepared to run or kick the ball out and bring the first half to a close.
First, the All Blacks had a crack at the Boks, but for most of the 10 minutes it was the Springboks in possession.
Captain Eben Etzebeth even turned down an opportunity for three points to set up an attacking lineout, and the Boks came agonizingly close.
Eventually, the All Blacks won a penalty on the ground and this time substitute flyhalf Lima Sopoaga knocked the ball out to bring Newlands to its feet and the half to a close.
It was a perfect testament of just how tightly contested this Test match was, with neither side wanting to give an inch.
The All Blacks would go in to win 25-24, but this is possibly the best Springbok performance for the past two international seasons.
“It’s probably, in the history of rugby, the longest first half I’ve seen,” Bok coach Allister Coetzee said afterwards.
“It showed that we wanted to win this game badly. The decision was made and the players, without a doubt, bought into the decision of the captain. What more can you ask of a team like this?”
According to vice-captain Siya Kolisi, the motivation for the Boks to keep going actually came from the tight forwards.
“They actually asked us to kick out, because they wanted to maul,” he said.
“They (the All Blacks) also wanted to keep playing, which was quite amazing. But the legs did feel it.”
All Black captain Kieran Read acknowledged afterwards that the decision to keep going was probably a touch irresponsible on his behalf.
“The Boks showed their intent and I think our egos maybe got in the way of what perhaps was a smart decision,” he said.
“Our guys wanted to give it back to them and hold onto the ball. It’s Test match footy and it turned into a bit of a spectacle. We probably made life a bit harder for ourselves than it needed to be.”
New Zealand hooker Dane Coles admitted afterwards that he was one of those players keen to keep going.
“Both teams didn’t want to give in. I think both teams were pretty keen to see who could open it up and who would score first,” he said.
“But I think both teams were also pretty happy when the ball went out and we could get in the shed. It was like playing touch footy.”
Highlights from the All Black and Springbok game
1. Bok standout!
All Black fullback Damian McKenzie, who scored a brilliant solo try, received the official man-of-the-match award, but for me the standout player was Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx.
Simply put, the Bok hooker was a ‘colossus’, on defence and with ball in hand.
Marx also won several penalties at the breakdown which got the Boks out of trouble on countless times.
His lineout throwing was also much more accurate, with the Boks winning 13 of 14 on their own throw.
He was duly rewarded with a late try off a driving maul which gave the hosts a sniff in the dying moments.
If ever there was a man-of-the-match accolade to go to a player from the losing team, then this was it.
2. Bok halfback inconsistencies
There were a few inspiring moments, but the harsh reality for the Springboks was that they lost this game due to crucial errors from their halfbacks.
Flyhalf Elton Jantjies missed a vital penalty kick from in front, while the All Blacks’ first try by centre Ryan Crotty came after Jantjies’ kick was charged down by his opposite number, Beauden Barrett.
All Black wing Rieko Ioane’s intercept try midway through the second half was a killer blow to the home side’s hopes and came after Bok scrumhalf Ross Cronje had thrown a wayward pass.
Cronje’s up-and-unders were also a bit telegraphed and there was one instance in the first half where he broke brilliantly, only to end up conceding possession to McKenzie.
In that instance, Cronje only needed to look to his left where Jantjies was waiting with an open goal-line lying in wait.
3. Debatable Crotty try
Ryan Crotty’s first half try was debatable to say the least.
English TMO Rowan Kitt explained that Crotty had knocked the ball backwards before grounding it with his waist.
The Kiwi midfielder however never looked in control and I’ve seen plenty of similar scenarios where a try was disallowed.
Interestingly, during the half-time break SuperSport pundit Nick Mallett said he had phoned SA Rugby’s head of referees, Mark Lawrence, who said the try should not have stood.
According to Lawrence, once you touch the ball and the ball is in the air, you’re deemed to have possession.
In this scenario, Crotty does lose possession and the ball then goes to ground before his stomach hits the ball. Lawrence told Mallett that he felt the ball was lost forward and that “it should have been a scrum and not a try”.
Looking at the replay, I struggle to conclude that Crotty lost the ball forward, but he also in no way had control of it…
4. De Allende sees red
Springbok replacement centre Damian de Allende’s late charge on Lima Sopoaga, after the latter had attempted an unsuccessful drop goal, was reckless and silly.
It was a deserved penalty to the All Blacks which effectively killed off any hopes the Springboks harboured of sneaking a late win.
However, a red card punishment for De Allende was harsh to say the least.
Yes, it was a late hit and a stupid thing to do given the game situation, but it was not overly reckless and in my opinion did not warrant a red card.
Luckily for De Allende the citing officer agreed and only gave the player a warning on Sunday.
This is a contact sport after all and luckily sanity prevailed from the citing officials.
5. Improved Bok set pieces
The Springboks’ set pieces showed improvement from the 57-0 drubbing in Albany last month.
As mentioned, the Boks won 13 of 14 of their own lineouts.
The one lost lineout unfortunately proved costly as it led to McKenzie’s vital 68th minute try.
There were still issues with Ruan Dreyer at tighthead however, with the Lions front ranker again proving a penalty liability at scrum time.
Dreyer is finding the going tough at Test level and the Bok scrum appeared more solid when debutant Wilco Louw replaced him in the 50th minute.
Loosehead Steven Kitshoff also proved that his maiden start in his 19th Test was long overdue.