All Blacks show another side, stay on history-making RWC run

LONDON (AP) Toughing out an arm wrestle in the driving rain against South Africa proved just as satisfying to the All Blacks as delivering champagne rugby in a nine-try romp against France under a closed roof.

The knockout stage is asking different questions of New Zealand, and the answers have been highly impressive.

In the quarterfinals, the All Blacks showed the French what playing with ”flair” really means – props offloading like centers, wingers running over would-be tacklers and scoring a hat trick of tries. It was the consummate display in Cardiff last weekend and a record winning margin in the knockouts.

It was never going to be like that against the powerful Springboks on Saturday. Conditions dictated it would be a battle of attrition, and there’s no tougher opponent in the pouring rain than South Africa.

But this New Zealand side came through, as it always does. A record of 53 wins in 56 matches under Steve Hansen suggests that Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer is right – this All Blacks vintage may just be ”the best team that’s ever played the game.”

”The Rugby Championship has been given a few smacks from up this way,” Hansen said, referring to perceived northern hemisphere criticism of the tournament as a glorified try-fest. ”You saw tonight that it’s actually a really, really physical competition. If you haven’t got physicality, you can’t play it. And if you are not skilled, you can’t play it.”

These All Blacks can win beautifully, but they can also win ugly.

Behind 12-7 at halftime and showing uncharacteristic indiscipline, New Zealand was up against it at Twickenham. The team was sent back out early for the second half, forced to do drills in the pouring rain as they waited for the South Africans to re-emerge.

But they had learnt the lessons from the first half. The All Blacks’ kicking game was much better – with the high balls and the kicks for the corners – their work at the breakdown was more effective, and their decision-making was spot on.

Dan Carter’s decision to kick the dropped goal, for example, was a huge moment, reducing the deficit to 12-10 in the 46th minute and giving New Zealand a platform while flanker Jerome Kaino was still in the sin-bin.

Then, in the final minutes, not contesting a South Africa lineout deep in All Blacks territory and driving back the Springboks pack to force a turnover. New Zealand captain Richie McCaw highlighted that as a ”big moment … that made the difference.”

”I was really rapt with the composure our guys showed,” Hansen said. ”In that last 15 minutes, we controlled the game pretty good.”

That comes with experience, and the All Blacks have plenty of that.

Whether it’s running down the clock against South Africa or scoring a converted try in injury time to beat Ireland in Dublin in 2013, Hansen’s side gets the job done. And in McCaw, Hansen has the perfect on-field leader.

”We’ve probably got the greatest skipper in the game, and probably the greatest player we’ve ever seen,” Hansen said. ”In 2007, he was a young captain he was criticized a lot (after New Zealand lost to France in the quarterfinals) and I know that hurt him.

”He’s grown his leadership skills and we as a team have grown people around him as well. We’ve got a leadership group on the field that has a massive amount of self-belief.”

McCaw agreed, saying the All Blacks thrive on the pressure moments.

”Rather than being scared of it, you back yourselves, after all the practice you have done, to nail those moments,” McCaw said. ”The guys held their composure.”

Onward to the final, back at Twickenham on Saturday, and either Australia and Argentina will have to deliver the match of their lives against the All Blacks. Even that might not be enough to stop them making history and becoming the first team to retain the World Cup trophy.

”We’ll look forward to watching Argentina and Australia smash each other,” Hansen said, ”and then we’ll look forward to a test match that will be very, very special.”