YOKOHAMA, Japan — When New Zealand and South Africa were drawn into the same pool for this year’s Rugby World Cup, even casual fans took notice.
Two of the sport’s super-heavyweights, they have met 45 times since 2000. Recently, they have seemed as evenly matched as ever: the last four meetings between the sides had all been decided by two points or less, with an aggregate score of 107-106.
With three lower-ranked teams — Canada, Italy and Namibia — in their first-round pool, New Zealand and South Africa both are expected to advance to the quarterfinals. That made their meeting on Saturday in their opening game not a must-win match, but something more like a measuring stick.
The result — a 23-13 New Zealand victory — showed clearly how much will be needed to knock the All Blacks, the two-time defending Rugby World Cup champions, off their throne.
“I think they won it; I don’t think we lost it,” South Africa Coach Rassie Erasmus said. “Two tries to one, they definitely deserved to win the game.”
The All Blacks were able to keep control the game by capitalizing on South African penalties and handling errors, especially after they scored a penalty goal and tries by George Bridge and Scott Barrett in one five-minute outburst midway through the first half.
Still, two long breakaway runs by the diminutive South Africa wing Cheslin Kolbe nearly turned the tables.
With South Africa trailing by 17-3 early in the second half but controlling the play, Kolbe broke down the right wing and looked certain to score. But he fumbled the ball just short of the try line after New Zealand flyhalf Richie Mo’unga caught up with him and made a saving tackle.
“It was a match-winner probably,” New Zealand Coach Steve Hansen said.
Still, the play signaled a momentum shift. Moments later, South Africa flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit scooped up the ball in the red zone and dove across the line to narrow the gap to 17-10. And 10 minutes later, flyhalf Handré Pollard added a brilliant drop goal to cut New Zealand’s lead to 17-13.
Two more New Zealand penalty goals sealed the final score line, but with about six minutes left, Kolbe dashed down the right wing again, danced around several New Zealand defenders and seemed destined to score. But the All Blacks defense managed somehow to bring him down.
“Our scramble defense tonight was really good,” said Hansen, the New Zealand coach. “The boys got back really well.”
The game capped an exciting second day at the World Cup. The two earlier matches went back and forth, with Australia needing a second-half comeback to beat Fiji, 39-21, in Sapporo, and France holding off a furious comeback by Argentina to win their pool match, 23-21, in Tokyo.