All Blacks captain Kieran Read has called a decision by referee Jerome Garces 'gutless' following a controversial call in the side's opening Rugby World Cup pool match against South Africa.

Garces, who sent off All Black Scott Barrett earlier this season, kept his cards in his pocket after a professional foul looked to deny an All Blacks try in the 21st minute.

Richie Mo'unga was tackled five metres short of the line by Boks winger Makazole Mapimpi who infringed play by lying over the ball.

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Ryan Crotty then had a pass knocked down from the ruck with the All Blacks on attack and numbers out wide. Garces and TMO Graham Hughes ruled an infringing play in the ruck following the initial tackle on Mo'unga but didn't label it a professional foul.

After watching the replay of the incident, Garces decided to award just a penalty to the All Blacks.

"It's a clear penalty against 11," Garces said.

According to Spark Sport commentator Scotty Stevenson, Read was fuming with the call.

"Kieran Read's words if you did not hear them were 'that's pretty gutless'," Stevenson said.

The non-call seemed to be the moment that flicked a switch for an All Blacks side that were dominated in the opening 20 minutes.

Mo'unga kicked the penalty for New Zealand's first points to make it 3-3 before two quick tries to George Bridge and Scott Barrett minutes later gave New Zealand a 17-3 lead at halftime.

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