New Zealand clinched the 2013 Castle Lager Rugby Championship title at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday evening after an exhilarating and somewhat controversial 38-27 victory over South Africa in front of a passionate crowd of 63 888.
The most anticipated rugby test of the year was played in ideal conditions and both teams responded by playing positive, running rugby that produced nine tries, five of them to the All Blacks.
The Springboks showed they could crack open the usually sound New Zealand defence, but their defence was found wanting on the day and was one of two disappointing features of their performance.
Captain Jean de Villiers said at the post-match presentation: "Rugby is about attack and defence and unfortunately our defence wasn't up to it tonight."
Their other problem area occurred in the fielding of kicks, both from hand and at kick off time. The All Blacks came away with the ball more often than the Boks when the ball had been in the air, and were more effective at the restarts.
South Africa were a little stronger in the set scrums, but not enough to make a discernible difference to the match, while the Kiwis fared surprisingly well at lineout time, turning over some South African throw-ins and effectively stopping a number of Springbok drives at their try line.
"When you play the Springboks, you have to give everything to try and win the game and we had to dig pretty deep," All Black skipper Richie McCaw said after his 120th test.
There was bright start to the game from the All Blacks, who won back the kick off and forced the Springboks deep into their 22 metre area.
The Kiwis nearly paid for some sloppy play as they attacked. when Bryan Habana latched onto a poor pass from Israel Dagg. The speedy winger hacked the ball through to almost on the All Blacks' 22, but was then beaten by the bounce, which allowed Ben Smith to recover possession.
A willingness to run the ball
Surprisingly, in the early going, both teams showed a willingness to run the ball. It was an approach that did not waver throughout the contest.
A sweeping move down the right flank opened up some space for Willie le Roux, who chipped the fullback, but Aaron Smith, on cover defence for New Zealand, prevented the immediate danger by gathering the ball and conceding a five metre scrum after dotting down behind his own try line.
From the set piece, South Africa put New Zealand under pressure and referee Nigel Owens, after no advantage had been won by the Springboks, awarded the home team a penalty for the 2011 World Cup winners going offside. Flyhalf Morne Steyn kicked the easy penalty to put the Boks 3-0 in front.
The All Blacks hit back quickly after Andrew Hore released Keiran Read on the right before Ben Smith, with a sharp sidestep inside, beat the South African defence and crossed for a superb try. Aaron Cruden added the extras to make it South Africa 3, New Zealand 7.
Undaunted, the Springboks brought the massive crowd to life when Bryan Habana scored his 16th try of the Castle Lager Rugby Championship to equal the record of Christian Cullen.
Eighthman Duane Vermeulen set up Habana by busting through the New Zealand defensive line before skipping Jean de Villiers with his pass to find Habana on the overlap. South Africa's record try scorer went over under the uprights and Steyn converted to make it South Africa 10, New Zealand 7.
Not long after the kick off, the Springboks and Habana had their second try and the star winger a Championship record.
Using the width of the field well, Francois Louw beat Read and forced Ben Smith to move inwards to help the eighthman tackle Louw. The Springbok fetcher put Habana into the clear with a beautiful pass and Habana then beat the last man in defence, Ben Smith, with a kick and chase to take South Africa's tally to 15. Steyn was unsuccessful in his attempt to convert the five-pointer.
With only a quarter of the game gone, the Springboks had half the tries they needed for a bonus point. Sadly, the two-try hero, Habana, had to leave the field only minutes later after tweaking a hamstring, with Jan Serfontein coming on in his place.
Coach Heynecke Meyer's charges looked confident and were making plenty of running after coming through the early pressure put on by the All Blacks.
New Zealand reply
With 25 minutes on the clock, New Zealand crossed the South African try line for a second time. After keeping the ball alive down the left flank when their attack looked like it had run out of steam, Sam Whitelock made ground deep into the Springboks' 22 before Liam Messam crashed over from close range, with Read helping to drive him over. Cruden's conversion brought the Kiwis to within a point of the Springboks.
With half-time closing in, the Springboks lost flanker Willem Alberts to an injury. He was carted off the field and replaced by Siya Kolisi.
The hooter sounded, but the All Blacks turned over possession and chose to counter-attack and not kick the ball out. Steve Hansen's charges took the ball wide down the left and when Hore found Messam wide on the touchline the flanker broke back inside to beat the cover defence and score New Zealand's third try. Cruden added the conversion, making it South Africa 15, New Zealand 21 at the break.
Early in the second half, South Africa were awarded a kickable penalty after scrumhalf Fourie du Preez was tackled without the ball. Instead of having a shot at goal, though, Morne Steyn kicked for the corner. This time the Boks created some momentum as they drove forward from the lineout.
The All Blacks stood firm, but the home side moved the ball first right and then left. When Liam Messam gave away a penalty by preventing the ball being released, he was yellow carded.
The potential kick at goal was from right in front and only five metres out, but the Boks ran it and Willie le Roux showed excellent footworkto pry open a gap and go over for a try. Steyn converted to edge South Africa one point in front.
Eben Etzebeth next brought the crowd to their feet with a galloping run down the left hand touchline. However, he gave away the ball when he tried to find support. Conrad Smith kicked ahead, forcing South Africa back into their 22. The Springboks then moved the ball to the right and Willie le Roux almost went over for his second and South Africa's fourth try, but knocked on in a tackle by two defenders.
Ma'a Nonu then twisted his way over the South African try line after the home team's defence had been broken out wide, but the decision on the grounding of the ball had to be taken by the television match official. The replay revealed an outstanding try-saving tackle by Kolisi. New Zealand, though, had won a penalty for the Springboks being offside.
With the ball directly in front of the uprights, only five metres out, Beauden Barritt, on for Cruden, knocked over the kick to make the score South Africa 22, New Zealand 24.
The All Blacks then breathed a sigh of relief after captain Jean de Villliers charged a clearance kick down deep in New Zealand territory. Etzebeth, though, turned over possession from the resulting lineout and captain De Villiers bowled over Barritt to score a bonus-point try out on the right. Steyn was unsuccessful with his conversion, leaving South Africa three points ahead.
Barritt, however, quickly made up for his missed tackle by slipping three tackles and going over for the bonus point try that clinched the Rugby Championship for New Zealand. When he converted his own try, the men from the Land of the Long White Cloud led by four points, 31-27.
Then, controversy. One of the assistant referees reported to referee Nigel Owens that Dane Coles, who had taken over from Andrew Hore, was not on the team sheet. A New Zealand official said it was a typing error, but Keven Mealamu, it should be pointed out, does not look much Dane Coles when written down. After some consultation, the match continued.
Shortly after that, New Zealand lost prop Ben Franks for 10 minutes for a swinging arm to the head of Coenie Oosthuizen. With 14 men on the field, though, they hit the Springboks with a sucker punch.
After winning a South African throw-in and making effective use of an overlap, they set Read free to run in a try down the left that took the Kiwis nine points clear. Barritt added two more with the conversion to put New Zealand 38-27 ahead. The crowd lost some of its volume.
Willie le Roux wasn't done, though, and he set De Villiers off on an impressive run into the New Zealand 22. De Villiers spilled the ball in a tackle, however, and the All Blacks countered effectively through Ben Smith, taking play into South African territory.
With only four minutes remaining, Le Roux intercepted a pass by substitute Steven Luatua. He sprinted towards the try line and looked for all money to be in for the try. Barritt, though, put in a fine try-saving tackle, forcing Le Roux's right foot onto the touchline only five metres out. The Springboks remained out of bonus point winning position.
Still, both team chased more, with both threatening to add further tries, but time had run out.
New Zealand had never won by more than three points at Ellis Park. This time they won by 11 to record only their fourth win in 12 tests at the ground and victory in the 2013 Castle Lager Rugby Championship.