Poor old John Smit. After 77 minutes of brutal, bludgeoning Tri-Nations rugby, in his hundredth test match, his under-the-cosh side were sitting five points clear of their 2010 tormentors, the All Blacks, with the score at 22-17. Finally something was going to go right for him; his loose forwards had performed like recently-deployed exocet missiles, Morne Steyn was a dead-eye Dick with his goalkicking, and new halfback Francois Hougaard had kicked intelligently and made lots of darting runs up round the fringes, a la Fourie du Preez. They had driven the AB’s back in the tackle more often than not, their scrum and line-out had stood up, and it looked for all the world like he was going to receive the ultimate party gift in front of a massive Soweto crowd of 90-odd thousand. His 2010 hoodoo was about to be broken.
And then, after 81 minutes, he was kneeling, his face in his hands, with his team on the wrong side of a 29-22 scoreline. He had the same hollow, dead eyed look that Dan Carter and Anton Oliver sported from the stands in ‘that’ 2007 RWC quarter-final. Good God fearing man that he is, he really must have wondered what the hell happened.
What happened, in a nutshell was, the All Blacks greatest find of 2010. Israel Dagg had come off the bench for Joe Rokocoko, and with a combination of instinct, balance and guile, contrived to break down the left flank, offload a (decidedly forward) pass to Mils Muliaina, who moved the ball swiftly back to the right in another of those sweeping movements, this time finished off in the right hand corner by outstanding captain Richie McCaw.
Or was it? Quite apart from the obvious forward pass leading up to the try, the TMO delivered (otherwise excellent) referee Nigel Owen the verdict that “there is no clear evidence that the player was in touch before grounding the ball” with seemingly indecent haste, and told him “you may award the try”. Great news for the All Blacks – not so good for John Smit’s party vibrations. A relatively below par Dan Carter obviously felt guilty enough about it to push the touchline conversion wide of the uprights. 22 all, which seemed like a pretty fair result for everybody involved – the AB’s get the solitary point they need to claim the Tri-Nations title for the tenth time, and Smit’s party, whilst not the slam dunk the Boks were hoping for, was at least not a washout…
And then, the truly extraordinary happened. From the restart the Boks claimed the ball from the air and started positioning for the inevitable drop goal, only to have their ruck blown over by the still willing All Black forwards, who swiftly got it into the hands of the cringingly so-called ‘dreadlocked destroyer’ Ma’a Nonu, who breezed, one booted, through the spent party boy’s ineffectual tackle before offloading to young Dagg, who stepped on the gas and glided over the line to dot down. Carter clearly decided that it was now too late for party niceties, and added the conversion, and the match was over. 29-22 All Blacks.
Some good friends of mine, fellas who have known only too well the exultant highs of victory, and the miserable lows of defeat, reckon this was the most satisfying All Blacks win of the last 20 years. Certainly, if you factor everything in – Smit’s 100th, the gigantic Soweto crowd, a vastly improved Boks performance, plus the fact that the AB’s only needed a point to seal the Tri-Nations, it speaks volumes for this side’s ticker that they hadn’t given up despite looking out for the count at the 77 minute mark.
At the risk of being merely another sycophantic voice in the chorus, Richie McCaw was absolutely extraordinary. His tackling was tireless and deadly accurate, his ball carrying indefatigable, and his leadership exemplary. He has matured into one of those talismanic sportsmen who is able to bring events into actuality, seemingly solely through force of will. He is currently the most influential player in world rugby, probably the most influential of his generation. It would be entirely fitting for such a magnificent player to lead his team to a home Webb Ellis victory next year.
But then, as John Smit learned in his centurion match, as the All Blacks learned in Cardiff, things don’t always pan out as you might wish them to. Sometimes you’re the pigeon, sometimes you’re the statue. Best, then, to just enjoy a magnificent win, in this most magnificent season. Peaking too soon – what, would you rather they had chucked in the towel at 77 minutes?
– Jeremy Taylor