Rain before and throughout the match put paid to any hopes of expansive rugby, but it was still a gripping, thrilling encounter, played with great intensity.
As forecast, England posed the toughest challenge of the tour but, in truth, they were outplayed for long periods before the Springboks reacted to their 10-point lead by making a host of stupid mistakes that let their opponents back into the game.
Having battled their way into a 9-6 lead after a troubled first half, the Springboks piled on the pressure at the start of the second half, but had to rely on quite extraordinary bounces of the ball for their only try. Pat Lambie’s grubber first of all deflected kindly for the visitors, putting them into the England 22. Lock Juandre Kruger then spilt the ball, but it went backwards. The attempted hack clear by England scrumhalf Ben Youngs rebounded off JP Pietersen and flew high towards the tryline, where two England players failed to gather the ball, dropping it into the hands of Willem Alberts, who just had to fall over the line to score.
The Springboks led 16-6 and were poised to shut England out of the game. But it should be a major concern for coach Heyneke Meyer that his team once again failed to follow-through on a commanding position, letting England back into the game through mistakes like kicking directly into touch after taking the ball back into their own 22 or from the kickoff.
England responded by thoroughly dominating territory in the final quarter and, trailing 12-16 with 80 seconds left to play, they won a penalty. But instead of going for the try that would win them the Test, they kicked the penalty but then did not have enough time to get back into the South African half after they failed to win the restart.
England captain Chris Robshaw has been widely criticised for his decision, which was inexplicable. But one could see the worry in England’s eyes all the way back in Johannesburg whenever they contemplated a lineout or even trying to find a way through the Springboks’ outstanding defence.
Well-marshalled by captain Jean de Villiers, South Africa’s defence was phenomenally efficient, with every player willing to get down and dirty for the team as England unleashed wave after wave of big ball-carriers. But there was also minimal flair from the home side and the Springboks, who showed some neat touches on attack despite the conditions, always looked the more likely team to score.
Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen were once again major factors in the lineout, with England hooker Tom Youngs suffering an awful afternoon with his throwing-in, and the Springboks used their advantage in that set-piece to the maximum.
After a torrid first 15 minutes in which referee Nigel Owens could see only fault in the visitors and no wrong in the English, South Africa dominated territory, keeping England under pressure, and it was pleasing to see Lambie play with such assurance at flyhalf. The 22-year-old kicked especially well, but also ran with the ball and showed some fine touches on attack in a far more balanced display at pivot.
One of the areas where the Springboks struggled was in the scrums, but that was largely due to Owens not seeing loosehead prop Alex Corbisiero scrumming in on the angle against Jannie du Plessis.
Whatever their other shortcomings, the Springboks of today are a hardy, determined bunch and they can be well-pleased with a perfect three-from-three record on tour. Their play was far from faultless but, for a team that is still developing, they showed impressive mettle in absorbing pressure in all three matches and ensuring victory was achieved, even if it was in ugly fashion.
There is no doubt that the future is full of promise for Meyer and this team.