All Blacks demolish Springboks again
Forget the great Party Central debate. The fun is to be had where the All Blacks are these days as Graham Henry's men play a brand of rugby that is as energising as it is entertaining.
For the second straight week the revitalised All Blacks have taken care of business against the world champion Springboks, on Saturday night securing their 11th test win on the trot with another outstanding display in Wellington, prevailing 31-17, four tries to two, in a near carbon copy from last week at Eden Park.
The Boks were much better this week, but it was telling that they were still second in this contest by some margin and once again could not prevent the New Zealanders running in four tries and taking the bonus point which puts them into a commanding spot on the Tri-Nations table.
It was not quite the complete All Black performance that we saw at Eden Park, but it was nonetheless another impressive one from Richie McCaw and his men as they continued their ruthless attacking form, again defended very well and had the standout individuals on the park for the second straight week.
Led by a couple of hometown heroes in Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu and another showcase performance from No 8 Kieran Read, the All Blacks were superior in most aspects against a more urgent Springboks outfit. McCaw also had a mighty match on defence and at the tackle where he engineered a succession of key turnovers.
There was also a nice little cameo from Israel Dagg off the bench, including a dazzling try late in the match that sealed the deal, another fine display from Mils Muliaina at the back and a continuation of Cory Jane's precision play on the wing.
The Boks forwards were more competitive this week and it was good to see Schalk Burger, in particular, becoming more visible with a much better performance. They even got amongst the home lineout in the second spell and either side of halftime managed to get some promising flow on that put the New Zealanders under real pressure.
But the All Blacks were superb mentally, punishing the Boks with two tries for some early ill-discipline and then closing the game down when they had to. They took their chances superbly and their defence was again brilliant as the South Africans struggled to convert their pressure into points at key times.
On a horrible old night in the capital the All Blacks burst out of the blocks with some beautiful rugby to go 10-0 up within a dozen minutes. And once again the New Zealanders punished the South Africans for yet more poor discipline.
The culprit this time was Danie Rossouw - Bakkies Botha's replacement, would you believe -- who was handed a yellow card for a niggly little nudge on Richie McCaw while he was on the deck, an offence that didn't just cost his team three points (a kickable penalty was reversed) but a further 10 as the All Blacks punished the under-manned South Africans with two quick strikes.
They were exhilarating scores, too, launched from deep with pace and precision, which is a good sign as this All Black attacking game rumbles into some pretty formidable form.
Nonu's try was set up by a fabulous raid down the right touchline that saw Read, Jane and McCaw all show their skills, and when Nonu finally entered the fray across field the powerhouse No 12 could not be stopped as he drove over like the bulldozer he is.
Then soon after Weepu - having a fabulous game - set up a try for Mils Muliaina with a great break down the middle and then a perfectly weighted pass for the fullback to steam on to and finish a 75m strike.
The Springboks didn't exactly roll over and play dead though and once Rossouw returned from his 10 minutes of purgatory, the visitors actually had the better of the next half-hour or so, getting the margin back to six by the break - thanks to an atoning try from the big second-rower.
The Boks also had their chances through the third quarter, but a nice finish by Rene Ranger out wide on the left - for his first test try in his first start - took the All Blacks out to an 18-10 lead that was soon extended by a further three when Weepu banged over a tricky penalty into the breeze.
From there the Boks were teetering on the brink and, a quarter of an hour out, when Dagg entered the fray and dazzled a succession of Boks defenders down the right touchline this baby was over. It was a superb piece of skill and footwork by the talented Hawke's Bay speedster and left the visitors playing for pride only over the final quarter of an hour.
Weepu had led the haka with as much gusto and passion as I've see from anyone and then the chunky little halfback proceeded to unleash a blinder in his first test start in 18 months. Judging by this effort, his days as Mr Impact off the bench could be at an end.
It was notable afterwards to hear Graham Henry label him the "player of the match" and wax decidedly lyrical about his halfback's contribution.
Read too made a powerful start to this match, causing all sort of problems with his mix of power and skilful offloads, and for the second straight week he played his highly rated opposite, Pierre Spies, off the park.
McCaw's contributions cannot be taken for granted either. He is at the heart of everything that is good for these All Blacks and his tireless play undoubtedly inspires his team-mates to go the extra yard.
Ranger also got through a busy night in his first test as a starter, his hands letting him down on a couple of occasions, but the Northlander doing well to finish the one clear chance that came his way. All told a promising night for the rookie 23-year-old.
With the win, the All Blacks extended their record at the Wellington venue to 11 wins from 13 since 2000, and also continue a fabulous rebuild from the ruins of last year's Springboks sweep. They've now won 11 in a row and though these deeds will mean nothing come next year's World Cup, valuable confidence, cohesion and character is being assimilated.
Afterwards McCaw reflected on another pretty satisfying night's work.
"I'm really proud of the boys," he said. "It's always easy to put one performance out there but to back it up tonight I'm very happy. The Boks certainly came to play and it was pretty physical out there."
McCaw said the message at halftime had been about urgency and the need to re-establish it, and it was refreshing to see his side soak up the pressure and then continue to build their lead.
"Defence can be a difference we had to defend pretty hard there and turn over the ball a couple of times and getting down the other end and score is what you've got to do in these games.
"When you're playing against the best in the world that's where you test yourself. To have two wins and two pretty good performances, we're very happy."
Let the partying begin. There's certainly plenty to celebrate for anyone who calls this All Blacks side their own.
All Blacks 31 (Ma'a Nonu, Mils Muliaina, Rene Ranger, Israel Dagg tries; Daniel Carter 2 pen, con, Piri Weepu pen)
South Africa 17 (Danie Rossouw, Schalk Burger tries; Morne Steyn pen, 2 con).