BLOEMFONTEIN - A trademark second-half surge wasn't enough as the All Blacks went down 28-19 to South Africa in a bruising Tri-Nations rugby test this morning (NZT).
Completely outplayed in the first half and fortunate to be trailing just 14-3 at halftime, New Zealand threatened to overhaul the hosts in a spirited second-half performance that has typified their recent tests against the Springboks.
However, an 80m try from centre Jaque Fourie sealed the game for the hosts, who were far more desperate at game's end than most of the crowd of 37,000 at Vodacom Park had anticipated at the break.
The Springboks were dominant up front in the first 40 minutes, with lock Victor Matfield and local boy Heinrich Brussow on the openside flank to the fore while the All Blacks struggled with their discipline and made silly mistakes.
They were let off by some awful goalkicking from Springboks first five-eighth Ruan Pienaar, who missed four from five shots and was replaced at halftime by the more accurate Morne Steyn.
Stephen Donald landed five from six for the All Blacks to keep them in the hunt through the second spell, their fightback started by a brilliant try to centre Conrad Smith.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said there were some obvious areas to work on when the two teams meet again in Pretoria in a week. Discipline, lineouts and territory tactics are to the fore.
"We weren't smart enough to play at the right end of the field in that first half," he said.
"I thought we defended pretty well but it was what we were going post-tackle, going off our feet.
"The Springboks played particularly well and simple mistakes forced us to play at our own end of the field. Points came from there."
All Blacks have never been such overwhelming underdogs for a test in the professional era and they were on the back foot throughout a lopsided first half.
They were harried at the breakdown, with halfback Brendon Leonard often struggling to clear, while Matfield provided a lesson in clean lineout and kickoff receptions.
As usual, the All Blacks improved markedly when they cleared their reserve bench, winning quality second phase ball and stretching a Springboks defence which held resolutely.
Plenty of penalties from Irish referee Alain Rolland kept the pace of the first half slow, suiting the hosts who rarely threatened out wide all night.
The All Blacks landed their only points of the first half courtesy of a penalty to first five-eighth Stephen Donald before the rot set in.
Proof there was no love lost between the sides was evident just a minute later when two veterans squared off, with teammates preventing Matfield and McCaw from taking their disagreement further.
Fullback Francois Steyn opened South Africa's account with a penalty goal that comfortably cleared the crossbar from 55m on the angle.
Pienaar's goalkicking horrors began with two kickable shots that struck the crossbar before he was successful in the 18th minute to put his side up.
Seven minutes later he scored a sweet try, doubling around second five-eighth Jean de Villiers to cross in the left corner.
Two more Pienaar misses were bisected by a second Francois Steyn penalty to round out the half.
The pattern looked set to continue when Morne Steyn slotted a 45m penalty soon after the restart but the tide began to turn.
Smith, a standout performer on attack and defence, scored one of the great centre tries to reduce the score to 17-10. Receiving the ball on a sharp angle from Donald, he fended off Morne Steyn and kept the defence at bay on jinking burst to the line.
Donald and Morne Steyn traded penalties before Donald's third of the night pulled New Zealand within four points with 17min remaining.
However, Fourie's try virtually sealed the result, the All Blacks left to rue a dropped pass from replacement lock Jason Eaton when they were hot on attack, the ball hacked ahead and the centre was left with an unguarded 30m run for the right corner.
Eaton also conceded a penalty to Morne Steyn with 2min remaining after Donald had coolly got his team within six points moments earlier, denying the All Blacks a bonus point.
South Africa go top of the Tri-Nations standings on points differential from New Zealand, who beat Australia 22-16 in the tournament opener last weekend.
South Africa 28 (Ruan Pienaar, Jaque Fourie tries; Pienaar pen, Francois Steyn 2 pen, Morne Steyn 3 pen) New Zealand 19 (Conrad Smith try; Stephen Donald 4 pen, con). Halftime: 14-3.