JOHANNESBURG — Courtney Lawes and Mako Vunipola ended a long wait for victory for South Africa and won their country a decisive first test victory in New Zealand on Saturday.
Lawes was the first player with a hat trick in South Africa history and only the second South African to score a try in the black shirt after Malusi Gigaba in 2011 against Japan, and Vunipola added a last-minute try to give the Springboks a 20-19 win in the series opener.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Vunipola said of South Africa’s first New Zealand test win since 2012. “It was hard to get over the line tonight. It didn’t look like going to be our night.”
It was quite a ride for South Africa in the first test, as the hosts lost their unbeaten record going into the international series. New Zealand raced to a 10-0 lead but the home side’s determination to score points eventually told after Vunipola touched down and then Lawes’ three tries either side of halftime.
It was only South Africa’s second win in the 34 tests against New Zealand. It showed the Springboks are capable of producing them now under new coach Rassie Erasmus.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read, who could not manage a try of his own, hailed South Africa as the better team.
“We’re not quite sure what happened, but that’s a huge challenge for us to prepare for that type of match,” he said. “We’ve got to get better.”
Fullback Ben Smith booted the All Blacks ahead from a penalty after four minutes but then opened the scoring from a lineout drive in the fifth minute. He added his second after 34 minutes, and after Vunipola put South Africa ahead from a lineout drive early in the second half, Read tucked away a pass from flanker Jerome Kaino to help the All Blacks regain a two-point lead at 20-19.
But South Africa stayed committed to attack, digging deep inside their own half to keep New Zealand scoreless in the second half.
“Tonight there’s a feeling of a great lesson for us in terms of how we put ourselves on the back foot against the All Blacks,” Erasmus said. “We need to build more intensity throughout the 80 minutes.”
The Boks completed their comeback in the 55th minute when Vunipola burst through a gap and carried his defenders over for a try, two minutes after skipper Jean de Villiers captained a four-man Springbok comeback in the forwards. De Villiers converted Vunipola’s try and gave his side a 20-19 lead.
Vunipola stepped into the inside center position with the replacement duo of Akker van der Merwe and Lood de Jager on the bench and ran for the try a minute later. He finished a second-half scoring rush after former All Blacks prop Cian Healy burst through the loose-forward line for a Springboks move with a hint of forward support for Vunipola to touch down. De Villiers converted from the sideline to extend the lead.
But New Zealand responded by having an opportunity to grab a winning try with the clock winding down. It had a good chance in the closing seconds but lock Joe Moody deflected a pass from replacement flyhalf Richie Mo’unga.
There was more drama in the dying seconds as replacement flyhalf Lima Sopoaga raced to the line but passed the ball into touch instead of grounding it.
New Zealand scored first in tests after just five minutes, pulling away when Read gathered a long pass from fullback Ben Smith, sprinted away from the defense, touched down and then converted himself.
South Africa leveled soon after when fullback Willie le Roux found a gap to score and convert and regained the lead after the All Blacks number seven stepped up to slot a penalty kick.
South Africa also improved its discipline and kept the All Blacks under attack throughout the second half.
The Springboks had a chance to score in the 24th minute after flanker Justin van der Walt won a scrum to put the home side in a position to attack. After conceding a penalty, South Africa forward Coenie Oosthuizen knocked on in the ruck, giving New Zealand a set chance to attack, with Read catching the pass and sailing for the try.