Aaron Smith believes New Zealand’s 23-13 victory over South Africa is a statement win that reasserts the All Blacks’ World Cup supremacy.
Scrum-half Smith revealed a mixture of relief and pride in Saturday’s pulsating two-try win over the aggressive and pacy Springboks in Yokohama.
The 30-year-old conceded the All Blacks had entered the match “under pressure”, despite their status as back-to-back world champions.
South Africa beat New Zealand 36-34 in Wellington in September 2018, then the sides drew in the same city in July.
New Zealand have suffered their first two defeats ever to Ireland in the last four-year cycle, with first Wales and now Joe Schmidt’s men overhauling the All Blacks at the top of the world rankings.
The All Blacks’ gritty victory was a muscle-flexing reminder of their status as tournament favourites in Japan though, leaving Smith in a buoyant mood.
Asked if Saturday’s victory is a big statement, Smith replied: “Yeah mate, oh for sure, for us it was a game that was coming forever.
“Once the Rugby Championship was over and the team was named it was all about this game.
“It was a weird right now, it was such a build-up for me, it felt like a final.
“And it was just such a great performance to be a part of.
“Emotionally it was a big build-up, and being out there, the heat, I’m really happy with how we performed.
“We’ve been under pressure a little bit, we had a draw in Wellington playing them, we’ve had mixed performances between now and the last World Cup.
“So it was really great tonight to win the little things that we really wanted to prove we could do well.
“There’s still a lot for us to improve on, we’ve got a lot of points left in us, but our defence needs to keep improving.”
George Bridge and Scott Barrett claimed the tries that swept New Zealand to a potent victory, and one based on counter-attacking brilliance.
South Africa ripped into New Zealand from the off, only to slip off that helter skelter pace in the second quarter.
Smith revealed captain Kieran Read hauled in the All Blacks and told them to take a beat, reset and go again.
“Kieran Read just got us in and told us ‘just breathe’,” said Smith.
“We were all running around, too pumped up. So he said ‘take a breath, do what you need to do and make sure you execute in the next moment’.
“Defence is a way to show how much you love each other, and we really wanted a defence we know is going to be a big part of this tournament.
“If you can’t get hungry to tackle the South Africans, they will run over you all day. They still did run over us at times, but it was the little guys who did the damage tonight, they are unbelievable on their feet.
“So if you don’t get that right they will go round you, and if you don’t get your body height right on the big guys they will run straight over you.
“We showed a lot of heart, and at the breakdown, but defence is a mark of how much you want to do it for each other.”