You can say what you want about the Springboks’ skills and style of play, but there is no doubting they are a team of excellent character, as proven by their come-from-behind 16-12 victory over Ireland in Dublin at the weekend.
Trailing 3-12 at half-time – a scoreline which flattered them, if anything – the Springboks produced a wonderful second-half display to allow coach Heyneke Meyer to claim his first away victory.
It was a victory built on magnificent defence. To keep Ireland scoreless in the second half, allowing them just one missed shot at goal, was a superb effort and testament to enormous discipline and commitment.
That defence was at its best in the last 25 minutes, when three Ireland attacks of 14, nine and 13 phases respectively foundered on the resolute green-and gold-wall.
The first half was totally different.
The locals were undoubtedly contemplating kegs of celebratory Guinness as Ireland thoroughly dominated the first half. The Springboks were ill-disciplined and were made to pay as referee Wayne Barnes seemed to have his eye on them, penalising them 11 times in the first 40 minutes.
And apart from conceding four penalties to flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, the Springboks could get nothing going themselves, having just a solitary Pat Lambie penalty to their name at the break as their moves came to naught due to handling errors or turnovers at the breakdown, where Ireland dominated in the first half.
The Springboks’ tactical kicking was also poor and on the several occasions they did try something ambitious with ball in hand, it was often from the wrong positions and without the hard work having been done first on the inside. The result was one-off runners isolated out wide and either a penalty or a turnover to Ireland.
It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right for the Springboks. They had even lost their talismanic and hugely popular loosehead prop, Beast Mtawarira, to heart palpitations on the morning of the Test. (He has since been released from hospital and should be fine to continue with the tour).
Even JP Pietersen was harshly yellow-carded for a tackle that was a split-second too early, the refereering team undoubtedly being swayed by the howling of the capacity crowd.
It would have been so easy for this largely inexperienced team to have lost their composure and crumbled to an embarrassing defeat, but instead they came out in the second half and produced a compelling 40 minutes of rugby that were devoid of the errors that had blighted their first half.
A fiery start to the second half saw a penalty kicked to touch – credit to captain Jean de Villiers for that – and an impressive rolling maul was launched which Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip could only bring down illegally, earning himself a yellow card.
Shortly thereafter, scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar sniped over under the poles for the only try of the match.
That cut the deficit to 10-12 and the Springboks played the percentages much better thereafter. The ball was kept in hand, but it was also kept tighter with short passes from the rucks, and eventually Ireland cracked under the barrage of ball-carriers, going offsides and allowing Lambie to grab the lead with his second penalty.
The Ireland offensive plan was based on the possibility of earning penalties within kickable distance rather than any obvious threat to the tryline, but the defence of the Springboks was nevertheless magnificent.
The skills of openside flank Francois Louw on the ground also helped tremendously, as did the introduction of loosehead prop Heinke van der Merwe in the 64th minute, the Ireland-based prodigal son earning crucial penalties in his first two scrums.
The return of Van der Merwe to the Springbok fold after playing just one Test against Wales in 2007 could well be one of the major success stories of the Meyer tenure. The former Lions prop was rated as one of the strongest scrummagers in the country before joining Leinster in 2010 and he can also play tighthead, a position where there is a serious lack of depth in South African rugby.
The performances of all four props who played was impressive, while hooker Adriaan Strauss was an almost manic presence all over the field as he won his family battle with cousin and Irish debutant Richardt Strauss.
Lock Eben Etzebeth’s work in the lineouts was once again of the highest quality, while the physical presence he and loose forwards Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen brought to the contest was also instrumental in the defensive steel of the Springboks.
While De Villiers received the ball almost impossibly flat in midfield and still made yards every time, the most talked-about backline player was Lambie.
The troubles of the first half aside, the 22-year-old produced a solid if unspectacular display, although he was instrumental in the impressive change of game plan in the second half that proved the mental abilities of this Springbok outfit.