LONDON, 24 Oct - The best teams in the world find a way to win so, in the driving rain and faced with indefatigable opponents, how could we be surprised that the team anointed this week as the finest of all-time and led by a man hailed by his coach as the greatest player of the lot should prevail?
It was mercilessly tough, not pretty in the slightest but, ultimately, there was a kind of glorious inevitability about the triumph that puts Richie McCaw and his All Blacks within 80 minutes of becoming the first team to successfully defend the Webb Ellis Cup.
The greatness of a team which has lost just three matches in its last 53 under the reign of Steve Hansen lies in its preternatural calm under the most fiendish pressure. This team understands how to win beautifully, as was evidenced in the clinical evisceration of France’s hopes in the quarter-final but, more importantly, it knows how to win ugly as it did here against the Springboks.
As coach Hansen smiled wryly afterwards, when asked to decide which he preferred: “Great performances don’t always look the same.”
Indeed. So how many teams would have looked at the state of play at half-time, trailing by five points against formidable foes not giving an inch in defence and knowing they were about to face the first nine minutes of the second half with 14 men following the sin-binning of Jerome Kaino, and not felt mightily discouraged?
Not these All Blacks. Maybe half-time was when this game was won. While the Springboks were in their dressing room, Hansen sent his men out into the driving rain, giving them the chance to work on their drills in the wet.
McCaw then gathered them in a huddle to preach his winning gospel. What did he say? “Good teams have to come from behind sometimes and we talked about getting up the ground quicker and playing the ball a bit sharper,” Conrad Smith explained. “We executed that really well in the second half."
It was no coincidence, surely, that they were ready to start the second period like champions, on the offensive, attuned to the conditions and not in the slightest cowed by being a man down. The Springboks were caught napping. It looked a masterstroke.
When Dan Carter struck with that drop goal, such a rarity in this tournament, it served not just to surprise the Springboks but to ensure that the All Blacks struck a psychological blow to win that key period 3-0 when they were short-handed.
Carter had a fine game, one of the All Black centurions who came up trumps at key moments, like when he ripped the ball from Schalk Burger’s hands to set up the second try, like his calmness to race back as the last line of defence and side-foot into touch with JP Pietersen bearing down on a possible try and like the decision in the final seconds not to go for another drop goal, but to check and pass to Sonny Bill Williams to keep the offensive going.
Again, no coincidence. As he reflected on the last 10 minutes when old heads ran the clock down so expertly, Hansen, paying tribute to McCaw, said: “It’s experience that allows that to happen. We’ve probably got the greatest player we’ve ever seen but he’s also a great skipper. In 2007, as a young captain, he was criticised a lot and I know that hurt.
“But he’s grown in his leadership skills and the team has grown around him. We have a leadership group which has a massive amount of self-belief - Reado (Kieran Read), Conrad Smith, Sam Cane, Dan (Carter) - we’ve had moments when we had to keep that self-belief so when you get into situations like tonight, it becomes the normal, I guess.”
It rubs off on the bench too. Replacements Williams and try scorer Beauden Barrett were so excellent you could hardly see the join.
In stark contrast to the New Zealanders, South Africa’s discipline and execution of skills began to crumble the longer the game progressed.
Burger scolded himself, Victor Matfield found it hard to adapt swiftly to the the intensity and the line-out, usually so immaculate, fell apart twice at key moments in the dying minutes.
Another old warrior, Bryan Habana had an unhappy night too, caught out for Kaino’s try and later sin-binned for a cynical offence but also guilty of a silly charge up to Carter when the fly-half was taking the early conversion which only gave one of the most accurate marksmen in the world a sighter and a second chance from near the touchline. Er, how crucial were those two points?
Ultimately, New Zealand did what good old Bill McLaren, the great commentator, used to call “doing the needful”. Don’t they always?
“Sometimes, when you’re down to 14, you find that little extra,” reckoned McCaw. “We were up against old foes giving everything they’d got but they didn’t bring any surprises.” Neither did the All Blacks. The most amazing thing about them? They make the art of winning look almost ho-hum.