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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Desperate All Blacks stun Ellis Park into silence in 35-23 win over Springboks

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Johannesburg — For many, this was the time when the Springboks would finally glean some ascendency over a desperate All Blacks side at Ellis Park. But time can be cruel, and there is still work that needs to be done if this Bok team is to make good on its promise.

It took four minutes for the first yellow card to be whipped out of the pocket of referee Luke Pearce, sanctioning Damian Willemse for a professional foul. Seven minutes in, and the anthem of stadia worldwide, “Sweet Caroline”, received a boisterous reception.

Nine minutes and Pieter-Steph du Toit charges up field, Lukhanyo Am desperately close to scoring. A chance goes begging, and a moment in time is lost.

Three minutes later, the first disagreement in the crowd catches the attention of the main grandstand and the Boks squad members – Evan Roos, Cobus Reinach, Andre Esterhuizen, Faf de Klerk, Bongi Mbonambi and a handful of others in the media area – all crane their necks to make sense of the kerfuffle in front of them. They miss the All Blacks charging forward, taking the fight to the Boks on the field.

Ellis Park is restless.

The Boks are battling against a side running hard, fast and loose at them. The conditions are dry, the pitch firm underfoot – the offloading game of the visitors isn’t perfect, but it is stringing together dangerous plays, more so than last week in Mbombela.

In this pressure cooker, Sam Cane gets the first chance to release some of the emotion of the occasion. Previously he had turned down points but now emotes towards poles to open the scoring on the night. Three minutes later, he scores.

Ellis Park is deflated.

The Bok game plan isn’t working. Jacques Nienaber calls on hometown hero Malcolm Marx to equalise the situation. The Bomb Squad follows moments later in the 35th minute. When Am finally scores for the Boks in the 37th minute, a sigh of relief and pent-up frustration is released. Pollard puts the Boks 10-15 behind at half-time.

It’s the 42nd minute – and things are getting heated on the field. Jasper Wiese tackles Aaron Smith, handbags are exchanged, and the All Blacks pull away 18-13. The New Zealanders have come with one helluva fight.

The Boks have had many opportunities, including what would have been a brilliant breakout by Am in the 57th minute, had it not been adjudged as having obstructed play. The supporters grow in disapproval. Anger is building. The ref is copping a blasting from them for perceived slights against the home team.

Ellis Park is undulating between joy and rage.

The Boks are in the ascendency and have been for 10 or so minutes. The effects of the altitude are starting to show. The All Blacks are not as sharp as they were in defence but they are clawing fiercely to stay in the competition. They are making errors in attack but so are the Boks, and their ill discipline is keeping the men in black in the game.

Makazole Mapimpi denied just moments before, crosses the whitewash and while the Boks are 21-20 behind, the game has swung in their directions. In the 62nd minute a rapturous Mexican Wave, deafening, sweeps around the stadium – the anticipation is building that victory is at hand.

Pearce is now really under the pump. Ellis Park is baying for blood, and the rugby gods must be appeased. Baueden Barrett receives a yellow card for cynical play on Jaden Hendrikse.

It is the 68th minute. Handre Pollard steps up to the kicking tee from the resulting penalty and nails the kick. It is the first time the Boks are ahead. But this meeting won’t be the Boks’ time.

They lose their grip on the match, and they too are battling with the thinning air and find themselves grasping at the coattails of the All Blacks in the final seven minutes. They watch on, almost helplessly, as the All Blacks close out an important victory which will save Ian Foster’s job for now.

Ellis Park is stunned into silence, and disbelief permeates through the dejected gathering. A handful of All Blacks supporters cannot contain their euphoria.

They get to enjoy the victory, but the Boks won’t – their time has yet to come.

@FreemanZAR

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