All Blacks primed for battle ahead

By Wynne Gray

Confirmation that rugby's greatest rivalry was still intact came as the All Blacks battered their way past the Springboks to give themselves a shot at Tri-Nations glory this weekend.

This test deserved to be the climax to the competition. It had an intense fury and passionate aggression rumbling all game, the Boks clawing back a lead and the All Blacks stealing the test at the death.

If this Collision at Carisbrook was the swansong for major internationals at this famous old ground, it was a humdinger of an exit.

The Boks were confident they could create their first win at the Brook since their 1921 debut, while the All Blacks were looking at that ugly script with five minutes left.

But the uncanny talents of hooker Keven Mealamu saved them, barrelling out of a maul to score the winning try with the sort of extraordinary skill Joe Rokocoko had shown for two tries in the opening spell.

It was a marvellous return to test rugby on home soil this season for Rokocoko, his test tally now a frightening 30 tries in 26 tests.

The result was another bitter disappointment for the Boks, one to match their last-minute loss in Christchurch last year. They had not made much of the play, though, and could point to their tight-five failures for their downfall.

They had no excuses, an admission which was underlined as Schalk Burger helped Jerry Collins out of his All Black gear as they exchanged jerseys after the test. It was a sign of respect from two of the game's gladiators.

The All Blacks had attacked the Springboks at their core, they had damaged them in the scrums and driven them backwards in the lineout. The pillars of South African rugby pride were dented.

Tactics further altered, at least in the first half, from the frenetic pattern the All Blacks tried in Cape Town.

Bombs were aimed at Percy Montgomery and the fullback reconfirmed his frailty under the high ball.

Instead of sending the ball wide and into the danger of the rush defence, Piri Weepu, Leon MacDonald and Mealamu snapped and surged around the fringes for valuable metres.

MacDonald drove at the inside defenders, Weepu did likewise, their power and agility delivering real problems for their larger opponents.

The strategies were effective but the three All Black tries in a halftime lead of 21-17 were moments of opportunism, brilliant individual skills but hardly constructed moves.

Rokocoko retrieved a chargedown and accelerated away for his first try in a wonderful piece of athleticism.

His second was more remarkable, collecting a loose ball to make a 20m run of twisting power to embarrass five tacklers.

Even MacDonald's try came from a spilled ball from Montgomery, the collection from Mealamu and offload for the new first five-eighths.

If the All Blacks did not go searching for width or vast movement, they were building pressure, they were unsettling the South Africans.

But they also damaged themselves. They conceded one try to the slippery Bryan Habana when they did not protect the ball and another to Enrico Januarie from a charge down.

When Collins threw a loose pass for Jaque Fourie to intercept and score, the All Blacks were behind with just a quarter of the test to run.

They had lost their way a touch, they had reverted to some of the risky play which has accompanied them this season. They got more frilly while the Springboks kicked for territory and backed their tackling screens.

The momentum was changing before the glow of the powerful All Black scrum, the arrival of lively Luke McAlister and some forward surges rescued the test.

Richie McCaw plunged at the line, referee Joel Jutge was about to award the try but went to the video ref. Disallowed, knocked on.

McAlister's left-foot wipers kick arrived at the Bok line with captain Tana Umaga. South Africa were pinned near the line for a rare part of the second half.

From a lineout the All Black maul swung wildly to one side before Mealamu emerged with a withering run to the line. McAlister's conversion extended the lead, Habana was tipped across the touchline by a desperate Umaga and the All Blacks survived to shoot for the Tri-Nations crown this Saturday.

"It was a great test match wasn't it?"said coach Graham Henry. "A marvellous test match, right at the top end of international competition I would have thought."

Henry's jubilation probably said a great deal about his relief rather than his delight at the quality of play. He was also able to applaud the Springboks' recent resurgence. "There's great rivalry between the two sides, which is very traditional. And it's there again, which is great."

Umaga was confident his side could recover from several costly errors.

"It was just about us concentrating and being composed and not trying to chase things individually. We had to stay together and stay tight."

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