Rugby World Cup: Flashes of black magic cast a spell on Boks

New Zealand soak up the punishment and turn on the style in ominous 23-13 win

New Zealand’s players salute the crowd after defeating South Africa. Photograph: Getty Images

New Zealand’s players salute the crowd after defeating South Africa. Photograph: Getty Images

 

In front of the eyes of the world, these fierce rivals, separated by 7,000 miles of ocean and connected by a century of rugby games, put on an extravaganza. It was as if they were conscious of their obligation to the game. If the east wanted to see rugby: this was it. If this hour could not showcase the beauty of rugby, then what hope was there?

On the hour mark, the athletes became cranky, with a bit of jousting and snarling around South Africa’s 10-metre line during a break in play but by then, this night had taken off into a sphere of its own. it was no longer the glamour tie of the opening weekend of the World Cup or a pool game, it was just New Zealand and South Africa taking each other to a place of exhilarating madness.

The scoreboard read 20-13 but this was a false illustration of what had happened on the field, with both teams going at each other with abandon. For the first time all the evening, a low rumble of “All Blacks” travelled from the Kiwi sections of the stands but it soon passed. The game was too riveting and wildly unreadable for the supporters of both countries to do anything other than watch on, goggle-eyed. Already, it was worth the trip.

It took 18 hours for the South African fans to fly from Johannesburg to Tokyo. It then took just over five minutes for the All Blacks to put them through the worst kind of jet lag of all. It’s an undying enmity, this, and there will be other nights and other results but there was an exotic and definitive element about this coming together here, under the lights in Yokohama, on the first weekend of Japan’s rugby carnival to stage a game whose result will carry significant rumblings among all the other rugby strongholds camped across Japan.

In the build-up to this tournament, the Springboks, in a moment of either carefree vanity or purposeful intent, posted a team photograph in the dressing room which advertised their phenomenal individual bulk and strength. The image made it clear that South Africa would be a physical nightmare for any team they met and it also raised a lot of awkward questions about the spectre of doping in the sport.

And there is no doubt that it fed into the prospect of the rough shapes this encounter might present after the beers had been drunk and the songs sung and TJ Perenara led the All Blacks through the ceremonial haka. South Africa promised to visit physical, gruelling punishment from the kick off and for 20 minutes, they did just that.

Beauden Barrett attempts to tackle Cheslin Kolbe. Photograph: Getty Images
Beauden Barrett attempts to tackle Cheslin Kolbe. Photograph: Getty Images

They owned the night. There seemed to be more Springbok fans in the ground and for the opening 20 minutes they enjoyed a sustained aria of South Africa’s abrasvie play, with Faf de Klerk’s sharp, questioning box-kicks making life unpleasant for George Bridge, who was tied up by Steven Kitschoff, forcing an early penalty which Handre Pollard clipped over. There followed a tense period where the All Blacks sat locked in their own half, unable to get their hands on any meaningful possession and looking rushed and uncertain as the Springboks, led by Steph du Toit, demonstrated a huge appetite for contact. Maybe the whisperings about the champions were true. Maybe the others were catching up: maybe the Blacks were getting old all at once. May be three times in a row was too much.

Then De Klerk threw a loose pass from the middle of the pitch. Against other teams, he might have gotten away with it.

The South African number nine is a vivid presence, pulsing with imagination and confidence. Sometimes that can be a dangerous combination. He got careless here for that one second. Richie Mo’Unga’s read was sharpest and feet were quickest and he fly-kicked ahead and then chased ahead with only the posts before him. And even though Makazole Mampipi made an outrageous covering tackle to deny a try if not the penalty, South Africa found themselves in a different world once the game restarted.

Here, now, in full five dimensional scope, were the world champions. In five minutes, South Africa’s control on the game had completely vanished and they found themselves confronted with the darkest proposition in international rugby: a New Zealand team having fun against them. It wasn’t just the blistering exchange of backs-and-forward passing for the two quick tries finished by Bridge and Scott Barrett, it was the mood that was suddenly pulsing from the team in black.

You could see it in the possibilities Beauden Barrett sensed when he moved across to cover yet another South Africa kick forward and waited until the ball hopped twice before accelerating through a narrow channel of space along the touch line. A voltage of surprise and joy circled the stadium: that feeling that anything was on and from anywhere. That mood of invention carried through a second half that was ridiculous at times: the high point of the night was probably surging break by Cheslin Kolbe along New Zealand’s left wing, turning Mo’unga inside-out only to be reeled in by the Blacks outhalf- with the try-line looming ahead of him.

New Zealand recovered the ball but with half of South Africa descending on him, Barrett then decided to run the ball from behind his own posts. It was outrageous and, from the high seats, thrilling to watch. South Africa remained game and deserved du Toit’s 48th minute try and even though there were further aftershocks, with Sonny Bill Williamgs getting away with a charged-down kick, the storm began to pass on the hour mark.

The Springboks looked hurt as they left the field. If this turns out to be a dress rehearsal for the final on November 2nd, then a series of blistering contests awaits. But the night finished on a familiar note: those black shirts waving at the crowd, faces wreathed in smiles, after another of exhibition of rugby that is sometimes feels like their game and theirs alone.

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