JOHANNESBURG // New Zealand left no doubt, if there was any, as to their status as the best team in the world, continually coming back against a pumped-up South Africa to win 38-27 and clinch a second consecutive Rugby Championship title on Saturday.
The clinical world champions led 21-15 at half-time and overcame second-half yellow cards to forwards Liam Messam and Ben Franks to finish nine points ahead of the Springboks on the table.
A much-anticipated showdown between the top ranked teams in the world, the match had everything, including a typing error.
When referee Nigel Owens queried the introduction of replacement All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu – a last-minute change – Steve Hansen, the New Zealand manager, came on to blame a “typing error”.
He did not explain how the spelling of Mealamu could be confused with Dane Coles, the original reserve hooker, but Springboks skipper Jean de Villiers was happy for play to continue.
South Africa, who had hooker Bismarck du Plessis controversially sent off in a 29-15 away loss to the All Blacks last month, lost Bryan Habana and Willem Alberts to injury in the opening half.
Left-wing Habana limped off with a hamstring injury after bagging two tries and flank Alberts was taken off on a stretcher following a collision just before the break.
“We had the belief to hit back when the momentum was against us,” said All Blacks flank and skipper Richie McCaw. “As an All Black, I relish these occasions, and winning at this great stadium makes me so proud. We gave everything out there this evening.”
De Villiers said: “To win rugby matches you have to attack and defend and our defence was not up to scratch in this match. Let us give credit to New Zealand – they deserved to win the match and the Championship after a great advertisement for rugby.” Morne Steyn, the South Africa fly-half, opened the scoring from the penalty tee to give the Springboks an early lead, but that was quickly cancelled out by Ben Smith’s try at the other end after he cut inside before crossing the whitewash to silence the Ellis Park crowd.
Aaron Cruden converted, but Bryan Habana soon had the home crowd back on their feet when the wing showed great awareness to claim Duane Vermeulen’s cut-out pass and cross for a try before he added his second two minutes later when he raced onto the end of his own chipped kick.
Steyn converted the first score, then Habana’s dream start was brought to an abrupt halt by injury and, he left the field midway through the first half.
New Zealand hit back with a forwards’ try for Liam Messam who had hold of the ball as the All Blacks’ pack drove over the line with Cruden converting to take the visitors back to within one point.
The game settled down after the frenetic start but New Zealand finished the first half the strongest as they again surged towards the Springboks, with Messam claiming his second try of the match in the final play after the hooter as South Africa were left to rue the decision to run the ball out of their defence.
Cruden added the extras as the All Blacks took a 21-15 lead into the break.
South Africa edged ahead at the start of the second half through wing Willie Le Roux’s converted try and the game then really opened up, with both sides desperate to run the ball at every opportunity.
Le Roux almost scored again but for some last-ditch defending before Ma’a Nonu, the New Zealand centre, was denied the try which would have wrapped up the Championship for the All Blacks.
The substitute Beauden Barrett did, however, fire a penalty, but Jean de Villiers put the Springboks back ahead after he barged over the line to claim the bonus-point try and give his side hope of victory.
However, Barrett crushed those dreams moments later when he crossed for New Zealand’s fourth try of the game, giving them the point they needed to take the title out of South Africa’s reach with 20 minutes still remaining.
No 8 Kieran Read was then unstoppable down the left wing as he powered over the line for another converted score as New Zealand stamped their authority all over the game and ensured victory to go along with the title.