Scott Barrett runs away to cross for an All Blacks try against the Springboks. (AP: Jae Hong)
Four minutes of first-half brilliance led an otherwise unconvincing New Zealand to a 23-13 victory over South Africa in a clash between two Rugby World Cup favourites that never quite lived up to its billing in Yokohama.
- Two tries in the first half helped the All Blacks establish a 17-3 lead at half-time
- The Springboks launched a fight-back in the second term to briefly close the gap on the scoreboard to four points
- The win almost assures the All Blacks of topping Pool B, with Canada, Namibia and Italy their remaining opponents
Earlier, Camille Lopez sent a drop goal looping just over the crossbar 10 minutes from time to give France a 23-21 victory over Argentina in a thrilling climax to a Pool C clash at Tokyo Stadium.
Having wrestled the Rugby Championship from their rivals last month, the Springboks pinned a scrappy All Blacks outfit back for 20 minutes but —with only three points to show for it — they were left stunned by two scintillating team tries from winger George Bridge and lock Scott Barrett.
A Pieter Steph du Toit try, moments after a stunning Cheslin Kolbe break, got South Africa right back in the match after half-time. Handre Pollard cut the deficit to four points with a drop goal but penalties from Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett consigned South Africa to its first defeat of 2019.
The All Blacks, who have an 11-day break before their next game against Canada, should go on to top Pool B and hope for an easier quarter-final as a result. South Africa next face Namibia in Toyota City.
@rugbyworldcup video tweet: The @AllBlacks bow to the crowd to thank them for their support
The Springboks had the physicality to match New Zealand but not the precision, with too many missed tackles, at times aimless kicking and poor hands under the high ball gifting away territory.
The All Blacks, though, were also uncharacteristically sloppy and, apart from their two moments of excellence, failed to trouble the Springboks goal line in a performance that will give their World Cup rivals food for thought.
After a long-range penalty from Pollard opened the score, he missed a simple opportunity to add another when he struck the post.
New Zealand rallied and produced the sucker-punch that knocked the stuffing out of the Springboks, as the world champions showed clinical finishing with two tries in just a few minutes.
Mo’unga’s clever cross-kick against the Springboks’ rush defence found wing Sevu Reece in acres of space and when he eluded the tackle of Makazole Mapimpi full-back Beauden Barrett moved into the line and slipped the ball to Bridge who scored.
New Zealand’s ability to gluttonously feed off Springboks errors also produced the second try as Pollard spilled a high ball and centre Anton Lienert-Brown’s brilliant break against a retreating defence teed up Scott Barrett for an easy score and a 17-3 half-time lead.
The Springboks worked their way back into the contest though and, after a break down the right wing by Kolbe, du Toit picked the ball up at the base of the ruck and cantered over unopposed.
Pollard added a drop goal on 59 minutes to narrow the New Zealand lead to four points and it was game-on again.
But a scrum penalty handed the momentum back to New Zealand as Mo’unga converted and when Beauden Barrett added another with eight minutes remaining the All Blacks closed out the victory they just about deserved.
France pips Argentina in thriller
France, a three-time World Cup finalist, looked set to romp to victory when they took a 20-3 half-time lead but the Pumas stormed back with two second-half tries and briefly took a one-point lead with 11 minutes to go.
Lopez, seconds after coming on as a replacement five-eighth for Romain Ntamack, erased it almost immediately with his left-footed drop kick but Argentina still had a chance to match its stunning 2007 upset of the then-World Cup hosts.
Pumas full-back Emiliano Boffelli was unable to get a late penalty between the posts from 47 metres, though, and the twice World Cup semi-finalists fell to a 10th straight loss and will probably need to beat England to get into the knock-out stages.
France captain Guilhem Guirado (right) and Yoann Huget show their elation after beating the Pumas. (Reuters: Matthew Childs)
There will be plenty of questions for France to ponder as well after it threw away a healthy lead built on a dominant first-half performance, some thrilling running rugby and tries from Gael Fickou and Antoine Dupont in a four-minute burst.
France captain Guilhem Guirado conceded he thought Argentina had won the match when Boffelli lined up to take his shot at goal but was very pleased with the display before half-time.
“I’m very proud of my boys. It was a tough game but we are very happy to start with a win,” he said.
“In the second half we never controlled the ball or the game but I am very proud of the first half because we were very clinical. When we play like that we are very dangerous.”