Mike Greenaway: Death-or-glory tradition is maintained

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Most pundits predicted that this was going to be a fast-and-furious, try-studded extravaganza on the dry, quick fields of the Free State Highveld.

In reality, given the will to win of the protagonists, it was destined to be a teeth-clenching, eyeball-popping, arm wrestle in the best traditions of the death-or-glory battles these countries have fought since 1921.

In the end it was the assured Springboks who emerged clear victors to snatch the world No 1 ranking.

Yesterday morning, over the well-deserved sausage, liver, bacon and eggs that are John Smit's favourite post-victory breakfast, the world champions would have savoured the fact that they are the Rugby World Cup holders, the vanquishers of the British and Irish Lions, and now have had a positive start in their quest to win South Africa's third Tri-Nations title.

If Smit's Boks can beat the All Blacks in Durban this week, a back-to-back accomplishment that Smit's team has never achieved in a season against New Zealand, they will be set up for their first title since 2004.

It was a fierce contest, the All Blacks - especially in the first half - defending for their lives as the rampant Boks ripped into them.

But as the arm wrestle intensified, the Boks could get the All Black knuckles to within an inch of the surface, yet could not ground them.

Really, the All Blacks should have been put away in a first half of Springbok supremacy, but they remained in touch partly because of their bloody-mindedness and because of the fragile kicking temperament of Ruan Pienaar, whose 11 squandered points (three penalties and a conversion from very kickable positions) kept the back door open for the Kiwis to mount a rearguard action.

Pienaar has an unfortunate reputation for having bad days with his boot - when he misses his first kick, he usually misses most of the rest. His first-quarter opening kick hit an upright, as did his second effort.

So the Boks ought to have had a significantly more imposing halftime lead than 14-3, and it was no surprise that Morne Steyn - who rescued the hosts at Loftus Versfeld in the second test against the Lions after Pienaar had failed with the boot - took the field for the second half. Only 15 minutes into the match, the crowd had been chanting his name, such was their desire to have the Bulls hero on the field. When he did take the field he did not disappoint, landing a penalty just three minutes into the second half.

In the first half, Francois Steyn had kicked a magnificent penalty from just inside his own half, and when Pienaar had been on the field he made up for missed penalties by rounding off an excellent team try and then getting it right with his third penalty.

At 17-3, the All Blacks realised the match was reaching the all-or-nothing stage and they resolutely clawed their way back into the game. The third quarter belonged to them, and a superbly taken try by centre Conrad Smith and then two penalties by Stephen Donald brought the Kiwis well back into the game at 17-13.

Francois Steyn gave the Boks breathing space with another exceptional penalty goal, but the coup de grace was delivered by the Boks' most popular player, the brilliant Jaque Fourie, whose trademark dash down the touchline for a corner-flag score underlined why every province in South Africa chases his signature.

A further Donald penalty gave the All Blacks hope of snatching an undeserved draw at 25-19, but Morne Steyn sealed a deserved Springbok win with a late penalty.

* Mike Greenaway is the chief rugby writer for the Natal Mercury in Durban

- NZ Herald

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