JOHANNESBURG • New Zealand replaced their regular brand of flair rugby for a grittier version as the world champions rallied for a 27-20 Rugby Championship victory over South Africa at Ellis Park.
Trailing for most of the match on Saturday, the All Blacks withstood enormous pressure from the home side. But a late piece of Richie McCaw lineout magic edged them ahead and they were able to close out the contest.
Coach Steve Hansen admitted that New Zealand were not quite at their best. However, he was delighted with the courage shown by his team to stay in touch when the going got tough.
"It was 10-all at half-time and it probably shouldn't have been," Hansen told reporters.
"It should have been way more than that but that's sport; if you don't take the opportunities you are given, then you are likely to get a bite on the bum."
Hansen believes the turning point of the game came in the final 15 minutes when, trailing 17-20, New Zealand withstood a goal-line battering by the Springboks.
"We defended our hearts out and showed a lot of courage," he said.
"If they had scored, then I think it would have been very difficult to come back," he added.
"But we showed the mental fortitude and physical ability to keep getting up and making tackles."
With the All Blacks on a semi-finals collision course with the Springboks at the World Cup in England later in the year, Hansen remains wary of the threat posed by South Africa.
"They are developing a style of game that's going to be difficult to combat, they have some very exciting young backs and have a lot of pace in their backline," he said.
"They have also got some brutal forwards so they should be pretty happy. They are the number two team in the rankings and, as we saw, there is nothing between the first and the second team."
South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer was left counting the cost of defeat on Saturday. And while injuries may disrupt his World Cup plans further, he believes the Springboks are still capable of beating anyone.
"Jannie (Du Plessis) has a knee injury, Flo (Francois Louw) injured a shoulder and Vincent (Koch) and Warren (Whiteley) probably have broken ribs," Meyer said.
"This resulted in us having to use the bench much earlier than we wanted, and even using (hooker) Adriaan Strauss as a flanker.
"I am happy that our plans worked well, but when the injuries struck, we lost too much momentum," he added.
The loss of their two nominated tighthead props meant French referee Jerome Garces called for uncontested scrums at a time when South Africa were completely on top.
Despite a second successive defeat, Meyer said his side were on the right path just months before the World Cup.
"The guys know they can beat anyone. We came within inches of beating both the Wallabies and All Blacks," he added. "I know we are inches away from clicking."
In their Championship opener in Brisbane in Australia last week, South Africa succumbed to a dramatic last-gasp try from Wallabies centre Tevita Kuridrani.
Australia will now take on New Zealand in the title decider in Sydney on Aug 8 after a dominant 34-9 win over Argentina in Mendoza on Saturday. REUTERS