New Zealand bounced back from their record Test defeat to thrash Australia 36-0 in Auckland.
Australia had beaten New Zealand 47-26 in Perth seven days earlier, the heaviest defeat in the All Blacks’ 583-Test history.
But it was a different story at Eden Park as outside-half Richie Mo’unga scored 14 points and New Zealand retained the Bledisloe Cup.
Mo’unga was among the All Blacks’ five try-scorers but, with the World Cup opener against South Africa just five weeks away, provided cause for concern when he suffered a heavy tackle from Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and left the action nursing his right shoulder.
Mo’unga had opened the scoring with a fourth-minute penalty before opposite number Christian Lealiifano missed two kicks, the first one striking an upright.
Lealiifano’s profligacy was to prove costly when Reece Hodge spilt a Kurtley Beale pass after 29 minutes and Mo’unga produced a smart pick up to burst over from 60 metres.
New Zealand went further ahead three minutes later as Beauden Barrett instigated a devastating counter-attack.
George Bridge was on hand to break between two defenders and freed Aaron Smith for his 17th Test try, with Mo’unga adding the extras again.
The All Blacks were reduced to 14 men when Dane Coles grabbed scrum-half Nic White around the neck and threw him to the ground judo-style.
But New Zealand still dominated – their seven-man scrum overpowered Australia’s eight-strong pack – and Sonny Bill Williams barrelled over six minutes after the restart.
Sevu Reece extended the lead with his first Test try, winning the race to his own kick for Barrett to convert before fellow winger Bridge wrapped up an emphatic win in the closing stages.
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In the 18 months since Rassie Erasmus took over as head coach, the Springboks have transformed from a laughing stock to genuine World Cup contenders.
Their swift turnaround has shaken the rugby world by storm and adds another exciting subplot to the sport’s global showpiece which gets under way in just five weeks time.
Winning the Rugby Championship last weekend – South Africa’s first trophy since the 2009 Tri-Nations – is confidence-boosting and a small prize for the path that Erasmus went on when he took the job last March.
Victories over Australia and Argentina, and a thrilling 16-16 draw against the All Blacks in recent weeks has the Springboks hitting form at the right time. And there is still plenty more to come.
Their ruthless thumping of the Pumas (46-13) last weekend in Salta to clinch the Rugby Championship followed New Zealand’s shock 47-26 defeat to Australia.
With the All Blacks stuttering‚ and England and Ireland off form in the Six Nations‚ South Africa has emerged as a surprise contender in what looks to be one of the most open tournaments in history.
The resurgent Boks will be out to show greater consistency when they begin their campaign against the All Blacks on September 21, a game that is likely to be the pool decider. After they face the world champions in Yokohama, Erasmus’s men will take on minnows Namibia, Italy and Canada.
The winner of the pool is likely to play Scotland, while the runner-up will take on Ireland for a place in the semi-finals.
Returning to the traditional Springbok style of play, the powerful South Africa forwards carry the ball with ferocity and a strong set-piece sets the platform to unleash their elusive backs at every opportunity.
Players like Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert, Duane Vermeulen and Malcolm Marx are all imperious with ball in hand and can make a critical difference against big opposition.
Behind the scrum, Faf du Kerk and Handre Pollard orchestrate proceedings from half back, with the searing pace of Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe to exploit out wide.
The team is far from the finished product, though, and a key theme throughout 2018 was the number of unforced errors that turned potentially winnable matches into defeats.
Among the seven defeats from 14 matches, four were by a margin of five points or less and all were games the team lost from winning positions.
But some extra weeks in camp has definitely ironed out errors and mental frailties, and they look more composed, intelligent and sharp in attack. Each player knows their job and respects the jersey.
On the defensive side, they tackle with conviction and don’t tire out towards the end of games like they did at times in 2018.
It feels like the embarrassing days of losing to Italy (20-18) or being thrashed 57-0 by the All Blacks were light years ago‚ and not a mere two years ago. That is testament to Erasmus and his coaching staff’s excellence in transforming the national side around.
The World Cup may be a step too far after only 18 months at the helm‚ but the giant leaps Erasmus and the Boks have taken have been stunning.
He has managed to build depth in most positions, capture the imagination of South African rugby public again, clinch their first piece of silverware in a decade and create an exciting and diverse gameplan.
Still, for any fan or player, it’s important to dream big, and the optimism around the team proves there is real belief they can be competing at the sharp end of the Rugby World Cup.
Union: South African Rugby Union
Head coach: Rassie Erasmus
Captain: Siya Kolisi
Most caps: Victor Matfield (127)
Top scorer: Percy Montgomery (893)
Top try scorer: Bryan Habana (67)
Star man: Handre Pollard. The Bulls star kicked 31 points to inspire the Boks to victory over Argentina last weekend. At 25, he is emerging as a real leader and has the ability to keep opponents constantly guessing with ball in hand as well as his accuracy from the boot.
Best finish: Winners (1995, 2007)
Fixtures: New Zealand (September 21), Namibia (September 28), Italy (October 4), Canada (October 8)
Ben Te’o has been overlooked for England’s 31-man World Cup squad in a shock omission by Eddie Jones.
Te’o has lost out to Piers Francis among the four centres bound for Japan 2019 despite being an ever-present under Jones when available.
The 32-year-old was involved in a scuffle with Mike Brown during a social event at the squad’s training camp in Treviso a fortnight ago.
Jones said over the weekend that Te’o was still in World Cup contention but the Australian has chosen to leave him out.
Former sevens specialist Ruaridh McConnochie continues a remarkable year by being present as the only uncapped player on the strength of a strong end to the season for Bath.
Flanker Lewis Ludlam, hooker Jack Singleton and scrum-half Willi Heinz made their debuts in Sunday’s rout of Wales and are also picked.
Jones has gambled by taking only two scrum-halves with Heinz providing cover for Ben Youngs, who is first choice in the position.
The decision to pick just five props means Harry Williams misses out, with Kyle Sinckler and Dan Cole travelling as the two tightheads.
Brad Shields will also miss out on the World Cup as he continues his rehabilitation from the foot injury incurred in Treviso.
The outlook on Shields left him with a race against time to board the plane with the rest of the squad on September 8 and Ludlam has been chosen in his place.
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