The Springboks used their big ball-carriers to batter England in the first half, stretching their lead to 28-10 early in the second half, before the visitors fought back to within four points at 31-27. It took an inspired try by wing JP Pietersen to seal victory for the South Africans.
“England can be really proud of their performance, especially at altitude. I don’t want to take anything away from them, they always come back. You can’t coach guts and commitment and in the Six Nations you could see England had lots of energy. They’re a young team and they will make mistakes, but they never say die and I knew we would really battle against them,” Meyer told a news conference after the test.
Meyer said part of the Springboks’ second-half fade was due to their set-pieces being disrupted by injuries. Tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis, lock Juandre Kruger and flank Willem Alberts all left the field in the second half.
“The first half was excellent, we played some great bits of rugby, but in the second half we lost momentum because of poor set-pieces.”
England coach Stuart Lancaster said that despite the defeat, the performance showed he had invested in the right players.
“I was delighted with the attitude in the second half, after we were definitely hanging on by our fingernails in the first half, and the fact that frustration was the over-riding emotion afterwards is a good thing. There was some pride mixed in there because of the comeback, but no sense of ‘good job, we almost won’.
“Some areas were better tonight and we can really take some positives out of here and we also learnt more about the players. The scrum began to take control and when we moved the ball, we caused their defences some trouble.
“More experience will give these guys a huge amount, especially a sense of how to manage the game in tense situations,” Lancaster said.
“I guarantee this team has another game left in them and they’ll be eager to have another crack in Port Elizabeth, that’s the good thing about a three-Test series.”
Meyer said the hard-fought win, after seemingly being in firm control, was a good lesson for his team, which is rebuilding after losing the core of two World Cup sides.
“We played really well in the first half, we wanted to up the tempo, but you have to grind out Test rugby, it’s not SuperRugby where you’re just going to score a lot of tries.
“We learnt a lot out there, panic could have set in but Jean de Villiers [captain] did really well. I would rather have this sort of win than 80 minutes of SuperRugby and then the team lose in this sort of situation later on,” the former Bulls coach said.
Pietersen said his match-winning try, after he ended the move he started by bumping off defenders on a mazy run from his own half, was one of the highlights of his 44-Test career.
“It was a golden moment for me, I played some of my best rugby tonight, both on attack and defence,” Pietersen said.
Having scored in the 73rd minute, Pietersen’s work was not done yet as he also had to tackle a rampaging Thomas Waldrom, the 111kg replacement loose forward, into touch close to the tryline in the dying moments.
“Credit to South Africa and to Heyneke Meyer: they’re a pretty formidable team and they’re playing as one unit, you can see how cohesive they are. They run hard at you, narrow you and then they move the ball,” Lancaster said.
England play a tour match against the SA Northern Barbarians in Potchefstroom, 123km from Johannesburg, on Tuesday night before relocating to the south-eastern coastal city of Port Elizabeth for the third and final Test next Saturday.