Tevita Li magic is not enough for Baby Blacks
A Tevita Li hattrick wasn't enough for New Zealand as South Africa claimed a 33-24 victory in the Junior Rugby World Championships at North Harbour Stadium tonight.
Without a solid foundation New Zealand are going to struggle to win a first world title since 2011, and the forwards have plenty of work to do.
South Africa had a visibly larger forward pack than New Zealand and used that to great effect, dominating their Kiwi counterparts and making it hard for New Zealand to find their backs.
The teams couldn't have played in more contrasting styles.
New Zealand focused on keeping the ball and using their exciting backline, while South Africa, naturally, kicked for territory and let their forwards go to work at the set piece.
Initially South Africa's plan was the one that worked, as pressure at scrum time led to two early penalties which Handre Pollard slotted home.
When New Zealand finally withstood the South African forward pressure, it led to their first points of the night.
South Africa lost the ball inside their own 22-metre line, and seconds later Li was in space on the wing to score.
All they needed was a sniff and the Baby Blacks backs came alive, as Damian McKenzie freed up Li on the left and put him in the corner.
The Blues winger was in again 10 minutes later, but this time it was all his own work.
Getting the ball surrounded by several South African defenders on halfway, Li overpowered three while tip-toeing along the sideline, before finding space.
Anton Lienert-Brown was free inside, but Li didn't need him as he stepped past South African fullback Warrick Gelant and scored under the posts.
South Africa's forwards continued to dominate, leading to another Pollard penalty, and then centre Jesse Kriel scored in the left corner for South Africa after another stray lineout from Hame Faiva.
That tied things at 14-all, but a late penalty to Simon Hickey gave New Zealand the lead at the break.
It seemed whichever team could find something extra from their weaker half would take the game, and it was South Africa's backs who stepped up after halftime.
First five Pollard finished off a reasonable set play to hand his team the lead, and New Zealand's forwards continued to struggle against South Africa's mammoth pack.
Winger Lloyd Greef extended South Africa's lead with 56 minutes on the clock, diving over in the right hand corner after several phases controlling the ball on the New Zealand line.
New Zealand were struggling to get out of their own half as South Africa's defence tightened up and prevented the ball getting to wingers Li and Vince Tavae-Aso.
When they did get into South Africa's half it was through Li, but as soon as the game moved to a set piece South Africa won the ball back.
Things got even tougher for New Zealand with 10 minutes to play when James Tucker was yellow carded after pulling down a maul.
From the next set piece South Africa made use of the extra man, allowing fullback Gelant to score in the corner.
Li capped a fine personal display late in the match with a third try under the posts, but it was too little too late.
In other matches, Samoa defeated Scotland 27-18, France hammered Fiji 37-5 and Ireland beat Wales 35-21 at ECOLight Stadium in Pukekohe, while Italy edged Argentina 29-26 and England beat Australia 38-24 at North Harbour Stadium.
South Africa 33 (Jesse Kriel, Handre Pollard, Lloyd Greef, Warrick Gelant tries; Pollard 2 con, 3 pen) - New Zealand 24 (Tevita Li 3 tries; Simon Hickey 2 con, pen, Richard Mo'unga con) HT 17-14