YOKOHAMA, Japan — New Zealand straightened the world champion crown on its head and removed any doubt about its status as Rugby World Cup favorite as it overcame South Africa 23-13 on Saturday in the tournament’s most anticipated pool game.
A resurgent South Africa drew with the All Blacks on their home turf in July and stripped them of the Rugby Championship to make many question whether the New Zealanders had been finally brought back to the field. They also lost the No. 1 ranking they’d held for a decade, but that’s coming back to them after this win that showed off their ruthlessness and depth of skills.
After a cagey start, the All Blacks unlocked the scoreboard by exploiting Springboks errors for 17 points in six minutes to lead 17-3 at halftime. The All Blacks let South Africa back in with a soft try, and the Springboks closed within four points with a quarter to go.
But the All Blacks re-imposed control up front, and two late penalties secured the victory to open their account in a bid for a third successive World Cup title.
New Zealand was stifled by South Africa’s blitz defense for more than a quarter, but pounced on the Springboks’ errors in possession.
A loose pass by scrumhalf Faf de Klerk was hacked on by New Zealand flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, who regathered and was caught in front of the posts by South Africa wing Makazole Mpimpi. South Africa was penalized and Mo’unga kicked the first points for New Zealand, which was energized.
A Duane Vermuelen knock on led to a Mo’unga cross-chip to unmarked wing Sevu Reece. He led a surge down the right touch line with support from Aaron Smith and Ardie Savea. Winger George Bridge then directed Beauden Barrett to take a half gap and Bridge was beside the fullback to take the offload and score.
Springboks flyhalf Handre Pollard then spilled another up-and-under and referee Jerome Garces played advantage. Center Anton Lienert-Brown received the ball squeezed in beside the left touch, turned inside, and cut past three defenders and slipped a fourth. He drew the last man and lock Scott Barrett loped to the posts.
Mo’unga converted both tries and the double strike in three minutes took the sting out of South Africa.
Halftime came as a respite to South Africa, which was being blocked by an All Blacks lineup making more than 90 percent of their tackles at that point.
Right until seven minutes into the new half, when a routine ruck set up by lock Eben Etzebeth wasn’t covered, amazingly, at its most exposed point — the middle. Flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit accepted the gap, stepped over Etzebeth, and ran untouched for a dive beside the posts.
Pollard’s conversion closed the gap to seven points, and then four with a dropped goal from 35 meters.
But fresh legs helped New Zealand regain momentum, giving Mo’unga and Barrett late penalty kicks to put the score out of reach, and retain their perfect record in pool play, now 29-0 over the tournament’s 32-year history.
New Zealand next plays in 11 days against Canada in Oita. South Africa has Namibia next Saturday in Toyota.