Were the Boks wilting more?

Jean de Villiers (Gallo)
Jean de Villiers (Gallo)
Cape Town – It will be some time before South Africa can again question the All Blacks’ ability to perform at high altitude ... supposedly a factor that is deemed worth a few extra points to the Springboks.

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Such vulnerability may well still apply to several Bok foes, particularly those from northern climes.

But clearly routine exposure -- both through ever-expanding Super Rugby and to a lesser extent Test matches -- to Highveld conditions is paying dividends for the cream of New Zealand’s players, both physically and now almost certainly psychologically as well.

For the record, the world champions have won all of their last three matches in Johannesburg, including the two prior to Saturday’s Ellis Park thriller that were staged at FNB Stadium in 2012 (32-16) and 2010 (29-22).

On both those occasions, the All Blacks particularly excelled deep in the more taxing second half – remember Richie McCaw’s 77th minute try and Israel Dagg’s real party-spoiler in the 79th to wipe out the host nation’s so promising lead until then in the 2010 clash?

Then two years later the New Zealanders’ second wind was again a decisive factor: they had actually trailed 16-12 at the break but registered 20 unanswered second-half points to romp to a bonus-point triumph.

They were last beaten at altitude in Bloemfontein, also some 1 400 metres above sea level, in 2009, the height of the Heinrich Brussow era of open-side destructiveness for SA and a year when the Boks last went on to claim the Tri-Nations title.

If ever there had seemed a feasible opportunity to venture that the All Blacks would be the likelier ones to run out of puff in the potentially key closing stages of a match, it was Saturday’s, which started at a murderous pace and pretty much stayed that way for the duration.

As mentioned in a previous assessment of the massively entertaining game, it is worth remembering, even through the domestic haze of bitter disappointment, just how brightly prospects of a Bok triumph – yes, even one with the required full-house job – flickered almost on the hour mark.

It was then that Jean de Villiers registered the morale-boosting fourth Bok try, which also gave his team the lead back at 27-24 in the ding-dong tussle: at that stage the All Blacks had only got three of their eventual five, so “Mission Impossible” for South Africa appeared very much on.

The more optimistic of Bok supporters were perfectly entitled at that point, frankly, to even wonder whether the floodgates might open and their beloved outfit put the game to bed in a most compelling way.

A much-capped former Springbok, Ollie le Roux, had tweeted with what appeared pretty good reason just a little earlier: “Test match rugby at its best, both teams have come to play ... if Boks can keep it up the AB forwards are going to lose steam after 70 minutes.” 

It is history now that the All Blacks did anything but fall apart, swiftly countering with Beauden Barrett’s try (their fourth, to delightedly secure the Castle Rugby Championship title) and then another to ram home their advantage as the Boks gradually lost their lustre – South Africa were grimly defending their own line, too, when the final whistle went.

Apart from the lessons provided in skills terms and team composure, New Zealand’s victory was also one for astounding and uncomfortably superior athleticism.

In short, they had more left in the tank, despite the lung-busting altitude and also the fact that they had travelled through formidable time zones from Argentina for the fixture – this had been listed as another reason to believe the Boks might win on the day.

Significantly, while mostly painting a bright picture for Bok progress over the next few months and years, former All Blacks coach John Mitchell did temper his thoughts in the SuperSport studio by charging that the Springboks “need to get leaner”.

He was suggesting, very clearly, that superior beef in the engine room doesn’t necessarily translate to greater effectiveness over the course of 80 gruelling minutes against the wily All Blacks, particularly on fast-paced pitches like the Ellis Park one.

Cerebral, Tri-Nations-winning former Bok coach Nick Mallett agreed, saying that the Boks will be better served once young tight forwards like Pieter-Steph du Toit and Frans Malherbe, who crucially combine power with mobility and a good work ethic, are gradually eased into to the match-day mix.

Fitness is just one aspect current coach Heyneke Meyer may have to chew on – and he is no closed-minded individual to constructive criticism of his charges or own philosophy – in the aftermath of another New Zealand etching on the Championship trophy ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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