Dubai: First we saw Japanese jitters against Russia. Then the Wallabies wobbled against Fiji. Plus there was plenty of argy-bargy in France against the Pumas.
Then came the clash of the Titans on Saturday afternoon at the Rugby World Cup as the defending champions took on South Africa in Pool B in the most mouth-watering match of the opening weekend of the tournament.
Just like the three games that preceded it, this blockbuster between the colossal All Blacks and the Springboks — which many are touting as a possible dress rehearsal for the grand final — did not disappoint.
The All Blacks boosted their credentials of making it three titles in a row with a 23-13 win against top contenders South Africa in Yokohama. But — despite the 10-point margin of victory — Steve Hansen’s men had to graft to get the points on the board as the tenacious Springboks fought all the way.
The major difference was five minutes of brilliance in the opening 40 that shell-shocked the South Africans and saw New Zealand rack up two converted tries.
The All Blacks thrilled 64,000 fans in Yokohama’s International Stadium with the scoring spree against the run of play. Until then the Springboks had enjoyed a huge territorial advantage but were unable to cross the line and had to rely on an early Handre Pollard penalty for their only points in the first half.
With the deft kicking of Faf de Klerk backed by the muscle of the South African pack, the All Blacks were pinned deep in their own half for most of the first quarter.
Then the game changed. Richie Mo’unga landed the penalty to level the scores and almost immediately set up the next scoring move, as a chip kick to right wing Sevu Reece launched a 60-metre move that finished with a try to left wing George Bridge. Almost immediately, Anton Lienert-Brown sparked New Zealand’s next attack which saw lock Scott Barrett go over for the try.
South Africa stepped up again after the break and a Pieter Steph du Toit try, moments after a stunning Cheslin Kolbe break, got South Africa right back in the match. Pollard cut the deficit to four points with a drop goal but penalties from Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett consigned South Africa to their first defeat of 2019.
The All Blacks, who have an 11-day break before their next game against Canada, should easily go on to top Pool B and hope for an easier quarter-final as a result. South Africa next face Namibia in Toyota City.
Australia 39 Fiji 21
France 23 Argentina 21
New Zealand 23 South Africa 13