An unexpected Dan Carter drop goal has helped keep the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup title hopes alive after they beat South Africa 20-18 in the semifinal at Twickenham on Sunday (NZT).
First five-eighth Carter also kicked two penalties and a conversion, but it was his thunderous left-footed droppie in the 46th minute that proved crucial as the All Blacks qualified for the final, against either Australia or Argentina, next weekend.
Skipper Richie McCaw, one of the All Blacks’ best, can now plan to try and bow out in style as he prepares for his second Rugby World Cup final showdown.
The movement that led to Carter’s drop goal started off at a messy lineout, and when the slippery ball was flung to Carter by halfback Aaron Smith he composed himself to send a missile arrowing between the sticks from about 30m out.
This match was a belter, a pulsating grip-your-seat affair that had the 80,000-strong crowd at the London stadium shaking with a mixture of nerves and excitement in the second half as both sides struggled to hold the ball at times in the rain.
A major contributor to the drama was referee Jerome Garces, the Frenchman caning the All Blacks with a 13-6 penalty count.
Although he was correct in ruling All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino and Springboks left wing Bryan Habana deserved yellow cards for cynical play, his breakdown rulings were often difficult to understand and the New Zealanders will be desperate to rectify this aspect of their game if they are to defend the Webb Ellis Cup.
Their scrum also came under immense pressure, conceding several penalties.
The All Blacks scored two tries to Kaino and Beauden Barrett, who had minutes earlier replaced injured right wing Nehe Milner-Skudder.
South Africa, as expected, tried to break open the All Blacks by repeatedly dropping missiles on their back three, and they certainly got some mileage out of that when Habana grabbed Fourie du Preez’s kicks down Nehe Milner-Skudder’s wing.
Unlike the quarterfinal against France, when they scored nine tries in a 62-13 rout, the All Blacks attempted to turn around the Springboks by repeatedly nudging grubbers along the turf.
As the game wore on, the ploy became too predictable and apart from one movement, when Ben Smith put pressure on Habana, they never came close to scoring a try.
Perhaps the forecast for the wet stuff, which proved spot-on, convinced the All Blacks to load their game plan with the short kicks at grass level; yet there was still a case for them to try and get in behind the defensive line by using huge midfielders, such as Ma’a Nonu, and when he was replaced in the second half by Sonny Bill Williams.
Before he addressed his men inside their bunker below HQ at halftime, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen would have been justified in taking a moment to compose himself when scrutinising his side’s statistics sheet.
They had secured 72 per cent of the territory, 65 per cent of the possession and had clocked-up 241 running metres compared to the South Africans’ relatively meagre total of 85.
The All Blacks lost the penalty count 9-3 in the opening 40 minutes and Pollard calmly slotted all four of his attempts.
Kaino had a tortured look on his face when Garces yellow carded him, but you are always dicing with danger when you try to be clever by tampering with the ball while retreating to get back on-side.
It was almost as if the big blindside flanker thought he was back playing in the backyard in Auckland as a kid and not in one of the biggest games of his career; inexplicably, and somewhat cynically, he nudged the ball back towards his side’s line.
Garces, having reviewed the big screen replay, had no hesitation in digging into his pocket and telling Kaino to take a 10 minute rest. Pollard made no mistake by nailing the kick and ensuring his country retreated to the sheds with a five-point lead.
Earlier, Kaino scored the only try of the opening 40 minutes, latching on to an wobbly overhead pass from Richie McCaw as the All Blacks attacked the right-hand zone. It was a fine finish by Kaino as he jabbed a fend into Lood de Jager and then sailed over near the corner post.
Carter missed a relatively easy penalty, especially by his standards, when he hit the woodwork and was denied another opportunity to punish the Boks when Garces reversed a penalty because he deemed looshead prop Joe Moody had executed a neck-roll during a clean-out.
McCaw had good reason to gripe with the pedantic whistler, but he would have also been wary about pushing his luck given the Springboks copped some tough calls too.
The Boks were likely most-aggrieved by a decision to call back wing JP Pietersen who looked set to score a runaway try off an intercept.
All Blacks: 20 (Jerome Kaino, Beauden Barrett tries; Dan Carter con, 2 pen, drop goal). Springboks: 18 (Handre Pollard 5 pen, Patrick Lambie pen). HT: 7-12
This post originally appeared at Stuff.co.nz. Richard Knowler is a reporter for Stuff.co.nz.
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