YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Four minutes of first-half brilliance led an otherwise unconvincing New Zealand to a 23-13 victory over South Africa in a clash between two World Cup favourites on Saturday that never quite lived up to its billing.
Having wrestled the Rugby Championship from their rivals last month, South Africa pinned a scrappy New Zealand back for 20 minutes but with only three points to show for their dominance they were left stunned by two scintillating team tries, from George Bridge and Scott Barrett.
A Pieter-Steph du Toit try, moments after a stunning Cheslin Kolbe break, got South Africa right back in the match after halftime. Handre Pollard cut the deficit to four points with a drop goal but penalties from Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett consigned South Africa to their first defeat of 2019.
The Springboks had the physicality to match New Zealand but not the precision, with too many missed tackles, at times aimless kicking and poor hands under the high ball gifting away territory.
The All Blacks were also uncharacteristically sloppy and, apart from their two moments of excellence, they failed to trouble the Bok' tryline with a performance that will give their World Cup rivals food for thought.
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus praised the All Blacks for the way in which they capitalised on the Springboks' errors.
"The tries they scored came from our mistakes," Erasmus said. "You could see in the first 10 minutes what their plan was to try and ruffle our defence; they kicked two up-and-unders from set-phases under our poles.
"There were times that we really put them under pressure. But people forget that as well as they attack, they defend very well too.
"The moment they get scoreboard pressure and you have to play in your half in these conditions, then they really make it tough."
Erasmus said the clinical way the All Blacks took their limited chances, versus the Boks' inability to do likewise, could be a telling factor later in the competition.
"Give all credit to New Zealand," he said. "It shows experience and a world-class team, and we struggled to handle that. I think it was a combination of them putting pressure on us and us not being able to handle it well."
After a long-range penalty from Pollard opened the score, he missed a simple opportunity to add another when he struck the post.
New Zealand rallied and produced the sucker-punch that knocked the stuffing out of the Boks, as the world champions showed clinical finishing with two tries in just a few minutes.
Mo'unga's clever cross-kick against the Boks' rush defence found wing Sevu Reece in acres of space; he eluded the tackle of Makazole Mapimpi, fullback Barrett moved into the line and slipped the ball to Bridge, who scored.
New Zealand's ability to feed off Boks errors also produced the second try, as Pollard spilled a high ball and centre Anton Lienert-Brown's brilliant break against a retreating defence teed up Scott Barrett for an easy score and a 17-3 halftime lead.
The Boks worked their way back into the contest, and Du Toit picked the ball up at the base of the ruck and cantered over unopposed , after a break down the right wing by Kolbe,.
South Africa had a renewed spring in their step, and another break from Duane Vermeulen saw the ball reach Kolbe only for a poor, low pass to knock him off his stride on the wing.
Pollard added a drop-goal on 59 minutes to narrow the New Zealand lead to four points, and it was game on again.
But a scrum penalty handed the momentum back to New Zealand as Mo'unga converted, and New Zealand closed out the victory they just about deserved after Beauden Barrett added another with eight minutes remaining.
The All Blacks, who have an 11-day break before their next game against Canada, should easily go on to top Pool B. South Africa next face Namibia in Toyota City.