South Africa vs New Zealand
Eden Park, Auckland
Final Score: NZ 26 - SA 15 (half-time score: NZ 13 - SA 9)
Referee: Peter Marshall
In one of the tightest Tri-Nations competitions yet all three sides were in a position to take the 2001 title going into this match.
South Africa would have to win this one and then rely on the All Blacks to beat the Wallabies in order to take it whereas the All Blacks had the luxury of controlling their own destiny, win their two remaining games and the title is theirs.
After the painful lose to the Wallabies in Dunedin two weeks ago there had been much blood-letting, both in the public arena and behind the closed doors of All Black management.
After the disappointing lose at Carisbrook the NZ public have put the AB management team on probation, anything less than a win tonight and an improved performance against Aussie next week will probably see their coaching reign come to an end. Nothing like a bit of pressure to focus your mind!
As a result of all this pressure the selectors had finally picked a starting lineup that the public (and media) generally agreed with.
The changes made included; Andrew Mehrtens replacing Tony Brown at first-five, Byron Kelleher replacing Justin Marshall at half-back, Leon Macdonald coming into the starting lineup at fullback with Jeff Wilson moving back to the wing (and Doug Howlett getting to warm the bench), Troy Flavell moving from lock to the blindside flank (No 6) to replace Reuben Thorne and subsequently Chris Jack coming into lock to get his first start for the All Blacks.
Most of these changes met universal approval with critics, although many still question the form of Ron Cribb at No 8, and the selection of utility loosie Taine Randell in the No 7 jersey. Personally I think Cribb has been harshly criticised, especially for the game against the Wallabies where the NZ tight five struggled to give Cribb and the inside backs good clean "go forward" ball, a situation that makes it hard for any No 8 to thrive.
As for Taine, I think he must have a clause in his contract that states he must start for the All Blacks, because it seems the whole aim of all the dicking with the mix of our loose forward trio over the last few years has revolved around keeping him in the starting lineup.
If we just left him on the blindside then I don't think anyone would have questioned his place in the starting team but while he is talented enough to be able to play in the 7 & 8 jersies surely we are better off to let players specialise in their best position at this level. For that reason I think Marty Holah should start in 7, and Randell should be on the bench providing cover for all three positions.
In any case the South Africans have persisted with playing giant Andre Venter out of his favoured position too this season so it's not likely that Randell will be as badly outplayed as he was by George Smith against the Wallabies.
Interestingly the selectors didn't change this mix at all for the game in Sydney though, hopefully Randell will get some serious support from the rest of the team in controlling Smith because he can't do it alone!
So to the match. On Saturday night I was attending a family reunion (150 years since the Cone family settled in New Zealand), a tough call indeed but I had the video set at home, and secretly suspected that there would be more than enough interest amongst my relatives attending the dinner to at least watch the TV 3 coverage starting at 9pm. I was right, like most kiwi families a chance to watch the ABs play was not to be passed up!
So the game kicked off. I'm not going to give a play by play report, you can get that from a stack of other sites, but the highlights for me were as follows.
The Auckland crowd: good on the Aucks for coming out in force on a miserably wet night to support the boys in a match where they needed it most. The crowd was very vocal and in good spirits (the fact that the All Blacks led all the way has a lot to do with that I'm sure!) and the ground seemed to be full.
Leon Macdonald: A monster on defense and dynamic on attack. Macdonald showed why the selectors have picked him as the second-best fullback in NZ over the last 3 seasons. He had a stormer.
I thought he worked particularly well with Wilson on attack, they combined to return numerous deep kicks with interest by working it down the sideline in situations where it seemed like they would be bundled into touch but somehow they kept it alive through some excellent interplay and good strength and body position when going to ground.
On defense he and Mehrtens often swapped positions as they did so often for the Crusaders in 2000, giving Macdonald the opportunity to put in some of his bone crunching tackles (and he made a stack of those, just ask SA Hooker Lucas Van Biljon!) and giving Mehrts heaps of time to use his tactical kicking to great advantage.
The AB management have rewarded Macdonald with the start this weekend against the Wallabies, even though Cullen is available again. Personally if a gamebreaker like Cullen is available then I think he has to start but on the strength of his performance this week I don't think Macdonald will let us down. In any case his position as the next best option at fullback shouldn't be questioned again anytime soon. Goldie better get used to competing for that number 14 jersey because he's not going to get a crack at the 15 again!
Andrew Mehrtens: he's still got it. Particularly in conditions like this where you have to play for field position there is no more influential player in world rugby. With his tactical kicking he kept the All Blacks in the SA half for much of the match, and continually unleashed his backline at just the right time, particularly with his use of the long cut out pass.
Chris Jack: One word, poise. In his first start for the Blacks Jack showed no sign of nerves what so ever. He competed well in the set pieces, kept the ball alive and linked well on attack and made a truck load of tackles in the tight. I especially liked the way he waded into the confrontation on the SA goalline, and the jab he landed wasn't too bad either! (David Tua wishes he had a reach like that I bet!)
Troy Flavell: I'm still not convinced about Flavell but he certainly had a good game, and as expected showed a lot more attacking flair than Reuben Thorn on the blindside. Some of his hit-ups were very impressive. Hopefully the selectors will accept that this is Flavell's best spot and stick with him there.
I thought it was a very entertaining game. In the wet conditions the passing skills of the All Blacks (both forwards and backs) was exceptional, and their defence was rock solid, restricting a determined South African team to 5 penalty goals.
All in all a good win for the boys and a huge improvement in attitude, tactics and execution over the forgetable outing at Carisbrook.
I'm sure all the AB fans out there were feeling just as chuffed as Anton was after the match. Let's bear this feeling in mind if we don't quite do it against the Wallabies in Sydney, yet again this Tri-Nations has been a nailbiter and the All Blacks have been right in the thick of it, get behind the boys and enjoy the spectacle that is International Rugby.