Savouring a first final appearance at the age of 33 in what he has promised to be his very last Test for New Zealand will be the sport’s greatest ever fly-half, Dan Carter. His 10 points with the boot included a momentum-shifting drop goal early in the second half of Twickenham’s first semi-final on Saturday that helped decide this absorbing clash of the titans.
Indications last night were that Richie McCaw will not be disciplined for a first-half incident involving South African Francois Louw. McCaw had a nervous wait yesterday as he sweated over a possible citing that could have left the All Blacks skipper on the sidelines for next Saturday’s final. McCaw caught Louw with his elbow as he passed his fellow flanker while running around the back of a 20th minute ruck.
Louw was struck on the forehead and collapsed to the ground immediately before leaving the field for the blood bin, returning five minutes later with a long wound that required 20 stitches, and although he did not attribute any blame, the citing officer had until 6am this morning to decide whether McCaw had a case to answer.
It appeared late last night that the captain was in the clear.
New Zealand played fast and loose with discipline during a first half which saw them concede nine penalties to South Africa’s three, the Springboks brilliantly pressurising the defending champions, who lost blindside flanker Jerome Kaino to the sin bin and trailed 12-7 at the break, Handre Pollard’s four penalty kicks cancelling out a converted Kieran Read try.
That this All Blacks collective dug deep yet again to turn the tide of an epic encounter — played not with the silky patterns of attack that had carved France apart the previous weekend but with the brute force of a skilful side that knew it was in a scrap — says much about the continuing team ethos and resilience that places Steve Hansen’s side on another level.
Yet it was still Carter who engineered the come-from-behind victory to see New Zealand into its fourth World Cup final, its second in a row and a first in the Northern Hemisphere.
As the rain began to fall steadily on a grey late afternoon in south-west London, Carter lit up Twickenham to drag his short-staffed side back from the brink.
His superb drop goal closed the 12-7 interval deficit after a brilliant period of sustained All Blacks pressure. Then he performed a great rip on Schalk Burger to turnover ball and lay the platform for Beauden Barrett’s try, created by some excellent approach work from Ma’a Nonu. The conversion stretched the lead to five points before an exchange of penalties between the fly-halves left the Springboks still needing a try to stay alive.
It did not come as the All Blacks closed out the game in brilliant, clinical and, yes, disciplined fashion, a penalty from sub Patrick Lambie the only nervous moment with 12 minutes to go before the match was played out in the South Africans’ 22.
“I am proud of what the guys did,” McCaw said. “We knew it would be a big step up and it was. To come out on the right side is satisfying. Our indiscipline let us down in the first half and we were under the pump, but the difference was the couple of opportunities we turned into tries.”
It was far from pretty but McCaw’s All Blacks can win whichever way the game pans out because they manage stress and difficult situations better than any other team. The slugfest nature of this contest was utterly compelling and must have made those who have pondered the north-south divide in rugby all last week wonder what debate had been for.
Yes, this was an immensely physical collision and a kicking contest under rain-filled skies but this was played on a higher level to anything we usually see on wet winter weekends in Dublin, Paris, London, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
And with the memory still sparklingly fresh of New Zealand’s creative masterclass in demolishing France seven days earlier, the ability to switch gameplans to suit any conditions is something to which us Europeans should aspire. For now, we can only admire.
B Smith; N Milner-Skudder (B Barrett, 49), C Smith, M Nonu (S B Williams, 52), J Savea; D Carter, A Smith; J Moody (B Franks, 69), D Coles (K Mealamu, 67), O Franks (C Faumuina, 52); B Retallick, S Whitelock; J Kaino (S Cane, 67), R McCaw - captain, K Read.
Kaino 38-48 mins
V Vito, T Kerr-Barlow.
W Le Roux; JP Pietersen, J Kriel, D De Allende (J Serfontein, 79), B Habana; H Pollard (P Lambie, 65), F du Preez - captain; T Mtawarira (T Nyakane, 53), B Du Plessis (A Strauss, 53), F Malherbe (J du Plessis, 60); E Etzebeth, L De Jager (V Matfield, 60); F Louw (W Alberts, 29-34), S Burger (W Alberts, 63), D Vermeulen.
Habana 52-62 mins
Jérôme Garcès (France)