Two soft tries in the last quarter dealt the killer blows to the Springboks but the narrow 25-24 win scored by the perennial Castle Lager Rugby Championship leaders from New Zealand in a great test match was a case of order being restored in the history of titanic battles between these nations.
Several years ago it would have been unimaginable for the Boks to be cheered by their supporters for losing by one point to their oldest foe, but the ovation they got at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday was deserved.
A better bounce of the ball here or there and some kinder luck could have seen them pull off one of the most astounding turn-arounds in international rugby history following the thumping they received in New Zealand three weeks ago.
In the end the heroic Boks, as tends to be the case against the Kiwis, will lament the small errors made that eventually cost them, such as the little attempted tap pass when they were pressing for the line as the game reached the hour mark that was intercepted for a length of the field try for All Black winger Rieko Ioane.
The Boks had been ahead 10-8 and although it might be pushing it to suggest it was a 14 point swing as the Bok attackers still had some work to do in order to dot down the try, it was nonetheless a mighty swing against them.
A less determined Bok team might have folded there and then as the All Blacks are renowned for their strong finish and to be behind against them going into the last quarter leaves you with a mountain to climb.
But the Boks struck back with a great try that was sparked by a break from replacement flyhalf Handre Pollard before the ball was carried on by the immense presence of Malcolm Marx before Jean-Luc du Preez was put in near the posts.
That was after 65 minutes and the Pollard conversion meant the Boks were back in front.
That was something South Africans would not have contemplated in their wildest dreams during the dark days of despair that followed the 57-0 drubbing at the hands of these opponents in Albany three weeks ago.
Unfortunately for them it didn’t last, for you can’t afford to relax for a second against the Kiwis, and the South Africans would know that.
It might sound unkind on All Black fullback Damian McKenzie to suggest his run off a cross field move from replacement David Havili was a soft try, but in reality the Boks should not have allowed it to happen.
McKenzie scythed past first one defender and then another and the next thing he was scoring in the corner after receiving the ball near halfway.
That’s the All Blacks for you. They have a tendency to pull a rabbit out of the hat when they most need it, and boy did they need it on this day, with travel fatigue coupled with a ferocious, physical and passionate Bok onslaught combining to make this match one of their more significant challenges in a busy year for the world champions.
Lima Sopoaga was on for the injured Beauden Barrett and his angled conversion from the right was a significant moment when the flags went up as it meant the Boks had to score a converted try to win.
Only it became more than that when with less than five minutes remaining Damian de Allende, on as a replacement, was guilty of a reckless late tackle in which he used the elbow after Sopoaga had tried to slot a drop-goal from in front of the posts.
De Allende was red carded and Sopoaga kicked the three points he was seeking from the drop attempt from the tee instead.
RUGBY THE WINNER
With the Boks down to 14 men, surely that was that. Think again though, for the determined hosts fought back to score a driving maul try rounded off by the magnificent Marx, and what a monstrous all-round game he produced, and suddenly it was a one point game again.
The Boks kept possession for the final minute and made a gallant attempt to break through but eventually the All Black defence stood firm and they were able to extend their winning sequence against the Boks to six games since the last South African win over the black jerseys in Johannesburg in 2014.
Ultimately, without wanting to sound cliched, this was a day when rugby really was the winner, and the Boks played a full part.
The All Blacks’ counter-attacks, watched from the lofty perch of the Newlands press box well above the field of play, were something to behold when they turned South African ball over in the first half.
Even though the Boks were winning the collisions, they had to rely on excellent scramble defence to save themselves from falling behind as they did in Albany as repeatedly the defence found itself outflanked by break-outs from deep inside New Zealand territory.
There were some excellent defensive moments from the Boks, such as the Jesse Kriel cover tackle on Ioane quite early in the game that knocked the ball out of the wing’s hands as he went over in the corner.
That was one of those small moments which might have gone the other way at the QBE Stadium three weeks ago, and they tell us a lot about why the Boks were so much closer on the scoreboard this time – 56 points in fact – than they were then.
There were many other small moments, such as Elton Jantjies landing his first penalty attempt this time whereas last time he missed an early opportunity to get a lead for his team.
Jantjies did miss a later kick from a slightly easier position and was guilty of the charge down that led to Ryan Crotty’s first-half try for the All Blacks.
Beauden Barrett and Crotty raced Kriel back to the line as the South African tried to recover the situation but Kriel was unable to pick up and Crotty was adjudged, after some lengthy debate between referee Jerome Garcia and the TMO, to have dotted down.
Barrett had kicked a penalty straight after Jantjies had kicked his so it was 8-3 at halftime, the half ending in a titanic too-and-fro 10 minutes after the hooter as both teams took it in turns to try and carry on the game from penalties.
As the Kiwis are supremely conditioned it seemed perhaps a little unwise for the Boks to prolong the match into a 90 minute affair, which it effectively became because of those extra 10 minutes, but that wasn’t what came back to bite them.
While the Boks won the collisions, and let it be said that every one of Allister Coetzee’s debatable selections came off on the day, the Boks were let down by some uncertain play from the halfbacks.
Both Ross Cronje and Jantjies had bad moments mixed in with the good, though Cronje did appear to gain in confidence once he had dotted down against the post for the Boks’ first try 10 minutes into the second half.
Back to those Coetzee selections.
Steven Kitshoff played out of his skin and was a constant thorn to the All Blacks as he barrelled towards them, and ditto for lock Lood de Jager, who joined his skipper Eben Etzebeth in rewinding the clock to a 2015 game at Ellis Park where the pair of them almost won it for the South Africans on their own.
And then there was Pieter-Steph du Toit. Up until today the experiment of playing the lock on the blindside flank hadn’t worked, but it did at Newlands.
Du Toit was the driving presence off the side that the Boks needed, and he also contributed to a lineout performance that was light years better than Albany.
Indeed, it was only late in the game that the first Bok lineout against the throw was recorded.
That is of course credit to Marx, who was all over the field and should have challenged closely for the man of the match award, and he probably would have got it had the Boks won.
They came so tantalisingly close to doing so and while they will feel gutted that they lost, they should feel that pride has been restored.
New Zealand 25 – Tries: Ryan Crotty, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie; Conversions: Lima Sopoaga 2; Penalties: Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga.
South Africa 24 – Tries: Ross Cronje, Jean-Luc du Preez and Malcolm Marx; Conversions: Elton Jantjies 2 and Handre Pollard; Penalty: Elton Jantjies.