Under-fire All Blacks coach Ian Foster raised eyebrows as he called Sunday’s 26-10 loss to the Springboks “probably our best performance of the year.”
New Zealand was bossed in scrums, at the breakdown and in the aerial contests as the world champions flexed their muscle in the Rugby Championship opener amid an electric atmosphere in Mbombela.
The All Blacks have now lost five of their last six Tests under Foster and are poised to drop to fifth in the world rankings when they are officially released next week.
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Their current status of fourth is already a historic low.
“In many ways this was probably our best performance of the year,” Foster said.
“I think we really did well at the lineouts, we defended their drives, we didn’t get any calls in that first half but our defence was really strong. It was a game dominated by defence and a couple of high ball errors. The timing was a fraction out against their line speed.”
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Foster was very grumpy about how the Springboks contested high kicks and indicated the All Blacks will raise their concerns with the officials.
“We’re going to have another look at them chucking bodies at us in the air,” Foster said.
“Pretty frustrated with that. The one in the first half we weren’t very happy with and certainly that last one was very dangerous.
“That’s part of the game we’ve got to sort out.”
The same teams meet again at Ellis Park next weekend and Foster’s job is hanging by a thread.
“There’s enough there to show we’re moving in the right direction,” Foster claimed.
“These are big Test matches and it hurts to drop it. Obviously there’s a lot of pressure around the team at the moment and everyone feels that. It ain’t easy, to be honest.”
The Springboks scored two tries, one at the start by winger Kurt-Lee Arendse and one right at the end by replacement Willie le Roux as the All Blacks launched a desperate late attack deep in their own 22 in an attempt to salvage some pride.
The Springboks were in control throughout and had a big territorial advantage to work with, although they finished with 14 men after Arendse was issued a red card – while he was lying flat out receiving medical attention – for a highly dangerous charge in the air on Beauden Barrett.
The Boks led 19-3 and were grinding their way to a big victory when the All Blacks finally broke clear of the home defence in the dying minutes with a bust by winger Caleb Clarke.
He was dragged down just short in an incredible tackle by Damian Willemse but replacement forward Shannon Frizell was on hand to score the only All Blacks try with two minutes to go.
But Frizell was the man to drop a pass from captain Sam Cane soon after, allowing le Roux to kick ahead and score, and seal the win.
Springboks five-eighth Handre Pollard kicked 16 points while hooker Malcolm Marx was a breakdown menace and centre Lukhanyo Am typically superb.
Rugby’s most successful team was already in the midst of its worst run in 24 years after last month’s historic home series loss to Ireland and is dangerously close to its worst set of results ever.
New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson has only guaranteed Foster’s survival for the tour of South Africa.
“It’s a damn challenging time at the moment because we’re working damn hard to get parts of our game right,” Cane said.
“That first half we didn’t really throw a punch. They were very good tonight, played their game of footy which can suffocate you.
“We didn’t take the high ball well enough and we didn’t well enough at the breakdown. It’s not like there’s a lack of effort or belief. It’s a very challenging time – we’ve just got to get back on the horse.
“It’s not like we’re way off but it doesn’t take away how disappointed we are.”
Meanwhile, inspirational Springboks captain Siya Kolisi praised the Mbombela crowd for their impact.
“Hopefully us performing like this lifts the people,” Kolisi said.
“For a lot of countries rugby is just a game – for us it’s far more than that.”
Kolisi added that he still had massive respect for the struggling All Blacks.
“I don’t care what people say, I know that team is strong.”
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