The Springboks can rest easy in the knowledge that they can, after all, play some of the best rugby on the planet and that the All Blacks are beatable after snatching a dramatic 27-25 victory at Ellis Park on Saturday night to end a five-game losing streak against New Zealand.
South Africans can also rest assured that they have two world-class, match-winning flyhalves in Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie.
Pollard set up victory in the epic test as he scored two brilliant tries to give the Springboks a 21-13 lead after a scintillating first half, and then Lambie, who can consider himself a finisher par excellence, slotted a 55m penalty in the 79th minute to save the game as a strong All Blacks comeback threatened to deny the home side once again.
Who knew that Lambie can even kick the ball that far? But the 23-year-old’s composure in big games should be undoubted.
The Test started at a typically furious pace, but this time it was the Springboks who set the blazing tempo.
A phenomenal first half will be remembered for a long, long time.
Pollard missed a penalty and the Springboks twice turned over possession on attack in the 22, and it was the New Zealanders who struck first, flyhalf Beauden Barrett kicking an eighth-minute penalty.
South Africa will surely never again be called one-dimensional after their opening try was an extraordinary effort that started in their own 22. Willie le Roux made the decision to spread the ball, and Pollard produced a hard, direct run that created some space on the outside. A grubber from Jean de Villiers was then picked up by right wing Cornal Hendricks, who burst clear. Jan Serfontein was up in support and when he was tackled, scrumhalf Francois Hougaard came roaring up and evaded the clutches of Richie McCaw to score under the poles.
Pollard converted but another Barrett penalty in the 17th minute closed the gap to 7-6.
The Springboks’ second try, in the 28th minute will easily go down as one of their greatest ever.
De Villiers, who made ball-handling in a congested, hugely physical midfield look like a Sunday picnic, made a superb pass a split-second before contact to Le Roux, who sent Bryan Habana hurtling away down the left. From the subsequent ruck when the flyer was caught, Teboho ‘Oupa’ Mohoje took the ball at pace and charged over the advantage line. With such good, quick ball, Pollard easily scythed through the remaining defence, finishing a superb team try with an intoxicating mixture of gliding, power and pace.
The All Blacks were 14-6 down and under the pump heading into the last five minutes of the first half, but despite a retreating scrum, Aaron Smith spotted space on the blindside and sent wing Julian Savea off on a powerful run.
He was caught by Pollard but the ball was recycled infield and, when centre Malikai Fekitoa noticed Eben Etzebeth making a lazy retreat, he made a beeline for him. The lock totally disrupted the defensive line and Fekitoa was able to break through and score, Barrett’s conversion making it a one-point game again.
It was all New Zealand for the last five minutes, but Bismarck du Plessis effected a crucial turnover deep in defence and Hougaard hacked the ball ahead. An enthralling foot-race ensued between Hendricks and Fekitoa, with the Sevens star forcing a five-metre scrum.
Solid frontfoot ball was all Pollard needed to once again show his sheer class with ball in hand, gliding through for his second try, dotting down through McCaw’s desperate tackle. The exclamation by the All Black captain said it all.
The Springboks took the attack again to the All Blacks in earnest from the start of the second half and an excellent rolling maul led to a penalty for a deliberate knock-on, Pollard extending the lead to 24-13.
It had been a memorable day for the Springboks thus far, but the All Blacks then mounted one of the famous, stirring comebacks. Today was not going to be the day they gave up their winning streak without a tremendous fight.
The home side were not only up against the world’s number one side playing with tremendous urgency, but also referee Wayne Barnes, who seemed determined to ensure there would be no All Blacks loss on his watch.
The All Blacks were given free rein at the breakdown and the Springboks were nailed. In the 67th minute, one such injustice led to outside centre Conrad Smith showing wonderful skill as he took a flat pass, half-shimmied and then burst through Jan Serfontein, before passing the ball out wide for Ben Smith to score and cut the deficit to 20-25.
Three minutes later and the Springboks were back under their poles. They had begun to fade, turning over possession, kicking more than they had and then losing a five-metre lineout. The All Blacks went right and then came back left, just passing the ball down the line and replacement hooker Dane Coles was the extra man to dive over in the corner.
Barrett’s conversion crucially did not go over though, and the Springboks had eight minutes to show their belief.
Lambie managed to get his monster over, sealing one of the more impressive Springbok triumphs.
The gap is not as wide as many believe and the Springboks are most certainly on the right track.