HAMILTON // The world champion Springboks were confirmed as one of South Africa's greatest ever teams after their epic victory over the All Blacks yesterday handed them their first Tri Nations title in five years. The triumph, to go with two earlier wins in the competition against New Zealand, is the first time in 60 years that they have beaten their great rivals on three occasions in a single season.
"We come from a World Cup win and managed to carry that momentum and intensity," said the captain John Smit, who celebrated his 90th Test match and his first-ever Test win in New Zealand by producing a archetypal captain's performance. He was outstanding in the tight and the loose exchanges. "I'm so proud of the boys," he said. Wearing the badges of battle - his lip was cut and blood trickled from his nostrils - Smit claimed the key was convincing his team not to rest on their half-time cushion.
"I told them that the All Blacks are an 80-minute team and that proved true," Smit said, referring to their outstanding attempt to claw back a 17-point deficit. "But I was so pleased with the character we showed. We did the hard yards in the first 40 and wanted to stay on top. "The All Blacks came out firing and we needed to up the intensity. We didn't manage that completely but did enough in the end."
After a shambolic first-half in which their lineout fell to pieces, their handling was poor and they struggled with the Boks' kick-and-chase tactics, the All Blacks pulled their act together to ensure the game went to the wire. The experiment of playing fly-half Stephen Donald at inside centre backfired and he was replaced in the second half. "Perhaps we didn't deserve [to win] after the first half where we struggled to win the ball," conceded the New Zealand captain Richie McCaw who brilliantly collected a cross-field kick from Dan Carter to score on 78 minutes and set up a rousing finale.
"In Test rugby, you must do it right from the start." He also lamented his team's ill-discipline, which was punished by the booming boot of Francois Steyn. Twice he nailed the All Blacks with three long-range penalties, leading Smit to remark that the young fullback was a "rocket launcher rather than a goalkicker". As the Boks embarked on a rare lap of honour around a New Zealand rugby field, coach Peter de Villiers lauded his team's achievement.
"It's huge," he said. "We're on top of the world. To beat New Zealand in New Zealand is a huge honour. It was tough, really tough. At the end there my heart was in my throat." In injury-time, a cross-field kick from Carter flew just over the head of two New Zealand forwards with South Africa's cover thin on the ground. "We had to work hard to keep them out and we did so," de Villiers said. "This is real international rugby, nation versus nation, pride versus pride." He strangely claimed that New Zealand were the best team in the world, "so to come here and beat them is massive".
The All Blacks coach Graham Henry attributed his team's defeat to their poor first-half showing. "If we played like we did in the last 20 we probably would have pulled this one out of the fire. But congratulations to the Springboks. They've won the Tri Nations and deserved to after beating us three times." Smit cared little for criticism of his team's one-dimensional tactics. "We have seen a large variety of rugby played and that's been good. You can't win with one plan, one tactic, and we have seen that. We made the most of whatever pressure we could apply but it was very close in the end. It's tricky to say who is going in the right direction but all three teams are playing different games.
"It's difficult to rate the three titles South Africa has won in the Tri Nations. But this was tougher to win than the one we got in 2004. To be able to beat the All Blacks three times in one year is very satisfying." Next week the All Blacks will attempt to pick up the pieces against Australia in the final game of the tournament. Pride, and little else, will be on the line. email@example.com