By Greg Stutchbury
AUCKLAND (Reuters) - South Africa left New Zealand early on Sunday heading for home quietly seething about a decision they publicly refused to condemn and no doubt thinking they had learned some valuable lessons about how to negate the All Blacks at home.
The Springboks were on a nine-match winning streak and had arrived in New Zealand confident of tipping over the All Blacks at their Eden Park fortress in Auckland.
The match was touted as the most important in New Zealand since the 2011 World Cup final and the visitors bristled with aggression, most notably hooker Bismarck du Plessis whose no-nonsense style resulted in a red card in the 29-15 loss to the world champions.
Both coach Heyneke Meyer and captain Jean de Villiers refused to be drawn on the decisions of referee Romain Poite with de Villiers particularly hard on his own side despite their numerical disadvantage for 50 minutes of the game.
"We have to look at the way we performed because that was not a performance that was good enough to compete with them," de Villiers said after the game on Saturday.
"This performance goes 100 percent towards the players, myself as captain and I have to take the fault for that. It's disappointing and I felt we let our country down."
The nature of the match and the way in which the All Blacks soaked up the Springboks' pressure suggested they may have won the game even if du Plessis had not been sent off, however, the visitors learned some valuable lessons for the return clash at Ellis Park on October 5.
The Springboks' direct approach of trying to bludgeon the All Blacks into submission was negated by the home side's defence, with their forwards refusing to take a backwards step.
The tactic however cut down on their attacking options because the South Africans' first instinct was to take contact when a better choice may have been to commit a defender and put a team mate into space.
Du Plessis' dismissal not only reduced the visitors to 14 man, but affected the balance of their attack.
Loose forward Willem Alberts was also forced to sit on the sideline while replacement hooker Adriaan Strauss was on the field and Meyer suggested that better discipline should allow them to launch from a more stable base.
"You can't play with 14 men, especially if it's your hooker because you can't scrum, you can't drive in the lineout and it effects your defence as well," Meyer said in obliquely agreeing the red card may have effected the result of the match.
"We were always short in the driving mauls because we didn't have a loose forward there and a lot of our plays are based around the loose forwards."
Despite the numerical advantage, the All Blacks said they felt they were comfortable the game would have been won anyway but were expecting a massive backlash when the two sides meet again in South Africa.
New Zealand next travel to La Plata to face Argentina, while the Springboks host an Australian side who are looking out of sorts and unable to compete at the same intensity as the top two sides in the world.
Should both sides win on September 28, the game in Johannesburg would be a title decider and the South Africans will be confident the cauldron of Ellis Park will give them a boost.
"It will be a physical battle again," All Blacks centre Conrad Smith said on Sunday.
"They will know what is coming and I think they will be prepared better than they were last night ... (and) I think it will be even more intense."