The scenarios in Pools A and B may already became clearer ahead of Ireland’s kick-off against Scotland yesterday but asking South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus about quarter-final permutations following this defeat was a fool’s errand.
As back-to-back champions New Zealand got their title defence up and running in thrilling style at the International Stadium - stretching their unbeaten run in the tournament into a third successive edition - the Springboks were facing up to the reality they will have to make World Cup history if they are to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a third time.
No team has become world champions having lost a pool game but barring disaster against Italy, Canada or Namibia, South Africa’s 10-point defeat in their pool opener was far from fatal.
Runner-up spot behind the All Blacks would seem a certainty and with it Erasmus can plan a quarter-final against likely Pool A winners Ireland after Joe Schmidt’s side saw off Scotland with surprising ease.
Yet on Saturday night, this loss to a team South Africa had looked to have achieved at least parity with over the past 12 months in the Rugby Championship, immediately put the former Munster director of rugby in no mood to be considering who the Boks’ knock-out opponents may be. Ireland or Scotland? It barely mattered to Erasmus.
“We’ve got an important game against Italy along the way, we’ve got Canada and Namibia also,” Erasmus said, “but Italy, in the last three years, we’ve had a slippery games against them so I might mention them before we start talking about the quarter-finals now as this result puts us under some pressure.
“We would have loved to win to have got some momentum going to the quarter-finals, but I tell you - Scotland, Ireland, Wales... there are so many teams that can currently do well on the day. Looking at Wales and England (in the warm-ups), on two consecutive weekends they smashed each other and even New Zealand and Australia, on two consecutive weekends the score went from 40 points one way to 40 points the other.
“Again, today, I wouldn’t say the scoreboard flattered us but if New Zealand scored another try it would have been a good hiding. But there’s also a time in the game where we made the game very, very close, so there are such small margins between a good hiding or you enjoy the win.
The Springboks may have suffered their biggest World Cup defeat since losing 29-9 to the All Blacks in the 2003 quarters but they showed enough to give the Ireland management pause for thought.
New Zealand, beaten by the Boks in Wellington in September 2018 and held to a draw in the same city two months ago, looked to have been on the rack again in Yokohama as Erasmus’s men got off to a ferocious start. Pinned back inside their 22 for long periods during the first quarter and forced to scramble repeatedly as the South Africans battered at their door, the sheer physical intensity of the onslaught sending shudders through the 63,649 crowd, never mind Kiwi defenders.
And yet, three points from the boot of Handré Pollard in the second minute was all they could show for their early dominance, the fly-half’s second penalty of the game on 17 minutes striking an upright to compound the wasted opportunities.
And how the All Blacks made them pay, capitalising on loose Springbok handling and passing to score two devastatingly good tries, finished by George Bridge and Scott Barrett in a golden five-minute spell between 23 and 28 minutes. From 0-3 down to 17-3 up in the blink of an eye and New Zealand had shown why they are still the team to beat, but what of South Africa.
They were sloppy at times and 35 missed tackles point to a defensive meltdown on a scale not seen since, well, Ireland at Twickenham last month, though New Zealand missed 28 tackles themselves. Clearly 18 turnovers and nine penalties conceded are not great statistics either but the Boks also showed plenty of character to rally in the third quarter, with a try off turnover ball for Pieter-Steph du Toit, the platform for which was a dazzling break down the right from Cheslin Kolbe, the diminutive pinball of a wing who jinked his way down the touchline only to be denied by an equally breathtaking tackle on the line from Richie Mo’unga.
Still, the try eventually came through du Toit and a perfectly executed drop goal from Pollard made it a four-point game just before the hour mark. Again, South Africa undid their good work with poor discipline as New Zealand pulled away once more, Mo’unga and man of the match Beauden Barrett supplying a twin threat from the tee as effective as their double playmaking role is proving in open play.
Pollard, for one, was down but not disheartened, which bodes ill for whoever tops Pool A and meets the Springboks in the quarter-final. The fly-half was asked whether his side could still win the World Cup and the reply was unequivocal.
“One hundred per cent. A couple of years ago we were way, way worse off than we are now and we will take that experience, definitely implement it this week and chat about it. The equation is simple now. We’ve got to win six out of six, so no excuses, we’ve just got to go away and work harder.”
B Barrett; S Reece, A Lienert-Brown, R Crotty (SB Williams 51min), G Bridge; R Mo’unga (B Smith 67), A Smith (TJ Perenara 62min); J Moody (Tu’ungafasi, 51), D Coles (C Taylor, half time), N Laulala (A Ta’avao-Matau, 51), S Whitelock, S Barrett (S Frizell 76), A Savea, S Cane (P Tuipulotu, half time), K Read (capt).
W Le Roux; C Kolbe, L Am (J Kriel 57), D De Allende, M Mapimpi; H Pollard, F De Klerk (H Jantjies 72min); S Kitshoff (T Mtawarira 68min), M Marx (B Mbonambi 62), F Malherbe (Nyakane 55-76), E Etzebeth (Snyman 70min), F Mostert, S Kolisi, capt (Louw, 51), S Du Toit, D Vermeulen.
J Garces (France)