While happy the All Blacks opened their World Cup campaign with a 23-13 victory over arch-rivals South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday, coach Steve Hansen faulted the effort and warned they had to improve to win the Cup.
The All Blacks set winning a third consecutive world crown, and fourth overall, as their goal with the ultimate target of regaining domination of the sport.
But in their opening Pool B match against South Africa, they struggled to get going until a golden patch midway through the first-half when they scored their two tries in the space of five minutes.
The only other try in the match was scored by the Springboks in a failed bid to overhaul the All Blacks in the second half although they were on the verge of nailing a second until flying wing Cheslin Kolbe was cut down by Richie Mo’unga just short of the line.
Hansen described that tackle as “a match-winner”, adding “that’s what rugby’s about, to try and win the moments that matter”.
But while pleased with the defense, as well as the low penalty count, Hansen found areas of the All Blacks game that needed improvement, particularly in the forwards.
“We won, so you have to be happy with that. Were we perfect? No, but you’re never going to be at this stage of the tournament,” he said.
“There’s plenty of stuff we can work on. It was really hard early in the game for us. Our set piece wasn’t as nice as you’d expect it to be and therefore you can’t have a platform to strike off.
“The boys adjusted okay and as the game wore on they’ve got more fluid with it, but it’s always going to be a titanic struggle and it’s an area we’re just continually working on.”
New Zealand’s next game is against Canada on Wednesday in a pool which also includes Namibia and Italy.
The All Blacks cut the Springboks to ribbons during a five-minute period of dominance in the first half that earned them two converted tries.
The scoring spree, in front of nearly 64,000 fans in Yokohama’s International Stadium, came against the early run of play. Until then, the Springboks had enjoyed a huge territorial advantage but were unable to cross the line and had to rely on an early Handre Pollard penalty for their only points in the first half.
In a frantically paced second half, the South Africans came within one try of regaining the lead before late penalties made the game safe for New Zealand.
“We can’t moan about this performance. They really played well, I think the referee was good. And we just have to work really hard,” said a magnanimous Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus.
South Africa will still feel confident of qualifying from a group that also includes Italy, Namibia and Canada but are almost certain to finish second in the pool after Saturday’s defeat.
“It was a heck of a test match,” said All Black captain Kieran Read. “It was a full 80 minutes right to the end there that we had to work,” said the skipper, who said the conditions were “tough.”
For the fourth time in as many matches at this World Cup, the team that scored first finished second. Perhaps it was nerves, but play was marred by many handling errors from both sides early in the contest.
South Africa’s reputed staunch defense was exposed by 26 missed tackles in the first half as the All Blacks’ pace proved too much.
After Springboks backrower Duane Vermeulen was given the honor in his 50th Test to lead the teams on to the field, Pollard quickly had the South Africans on the board with a handy penalty.
With the deft kicking of Faf de Klerk backed by the muscle of the South African pack, the All Blacks were pinned deep in their own half for most of the first quarter until a Richie Mo’unga breakout brought them into the game for the first time.
Although South Africa saved that try, Mo’unga landed the penalty to level the scores and almost immediately set up the next scoring move, as a chip kick to right wing Sevu Reece launched a 60-meter move that finished with a try for left-wing George Bridge.
Influential center Anton Lienert-Brown sparked New Zealand’s next long-range counter-attack which saw lock Scott Barrett pop up in support for the try.
It took South Africa until the eighth minute of the second half to score their first try when Pieter-Steph du Toit brushed aside Aaron Smith to score near the posts.
Pollard narrowed the gap further with a 40-meter drop goal to have the South Africans a try away from taking the lead.
But late penalties by Mo’unga and man-of-the-match Beauden Barrett gave the All Blacks a 10-point safety net.