Beauden Barrett has been the victim of an horrific red card incident in the All Blacks’ comprehensive 26-10 defeat to South Africa at Mbombela Stadium on Sunday morning, the first-five landing on his head in the final minutes of the game after contesting a high kick.
Springboks wing Kurt-Lee Arendse was the culprit in the 74th minute when he charged into the leaping Barrett in what was a reckless and highly dangerous act.
Referee Angus Gardner had no option but to show Arendse a red card and the little No.14, who scored his first Test try in the first half, and who sailed very close to the wind in terms of his leaping into All Blacks off the ground in the opening half, faces a long ban.
The game was stopped for a long period as both players required medical attention, with Barrett replaced by midfielder Rieko Ioane, who had earlier been substituted for Quinn Tupaea.
Head coach Ian Foster, who will inevitably come under even more pressure now, alluded to the incident when he told Sky Sports afterwards: “We’ll have another look at them chucking bodies in the air. We weren’t happy with that.”
The incident will quite rightly dominate the initial headlines in the aftermath of the All Blacks’ first Rugby Championship defeat after their series loss to Ireland, but so too will the visitors’ inability to gain consistent dominance in any facet of the game against a Boks team who tired towards the end but weren’t extended.
And the worrying thing for the All Blacks and Foster is that none of it was particularly surprising.
Most predicted the All Blacks to struggle in the set piece, and they largely did in coughing up four scrum penalties. They also struggled at the breakdown, as they did against Ireland, with hooker Malcolm Marx, celebrating his 50th Test, a constant menace there.
The Boks won the aerial battle, although the legality of some of that was debatable, and won virtually every collision.
It meant the All Blacks struggled to find their attacking rhythm against a hard-charging defence, although Beauden Barrett showed glimpses of his former spark and Richie Mo’unga added value when he replaced the injured Jordie Barrett in the second half. Ardie Savea was effective at times but neither Caleb Clarke nor Will Jordan were in the game enough.
The Boks, who attempted to scrum, maul and kick the All Blacks into submission, largely achieved that, despite the early injury to key halfback Faf de Klerk.
De Klerk, a local who was born in Nelspruit, was off after 40 seconds, the halfback appearing to be knocked unconscious after his left temple made contact with Clarke’s left knee as he attempted to tackled the All Blacks wing.
Given the Boks had only two backs reserves, the blow could have been a major one for the home side but de Klerk’s replacement Jaden Hendrikse, while lacking the incumbent’s running spark, kicked and organised with intelligence.
In a continuation of recent events against Ireland, the All Blacks again conceded the first try which came via a Handre Pollard high kick, Jordie Barrett losing out and Arendse was the beneficiary of the Boks’ pressure and a brilliant pass off the ground by centre Lukhanyo Am.
From there, the Boks’ defence effectively shut out the All Blacks. The visitors did break through late in the match when Shannon Frizell scored from close range after a brilliant breakout by Clarke, but they were constantly under pressure, occasionally rattled, and often playing on the back foot against a side who knew exactly what they wanted to achieve.
Jordie Barrett’s penalty was all the All Blacks had to show for their first-half efforts, and while Frizell’s try narrowed the gap to 19-10 after Mo’unga's superb sideline conversion, which he took quickly, Frizell undid the good work when shortly afterwards dropping the ball cold and allowing replacement Boks outside back Willie le Roux to score a converted try.
“In many ways it was probably our best performance of the year,” Foster said. “Really proud of our effort.”
Skipper Sam Cane said: “It’s a damn challenging time at the moment. We’re working damn hard to get a few parts of our game right.
“We didn’t throw a punch in the first half and couldn’t get any momentum going.”
The All Blacks now head to Johannesburg and the second Test at Ellis Park potentially without Beauden Barrett due to Arendse's act of foul play and in need of improvements across the board.
South Africa 26 (Kurt-Lee Arendse, Willie le Roux tries; Handre Pollard 2 cons, 3 pens, dropped goal)
All Blacks 10 (Shannon Frizell try; Jordie Barrett pen, Richie Mo’unga con)