Cape Town - They couldn’t quite get over the line, but the Springboks put in the kind of performance that would have given comeback specialist Lazarus a lot to think about.
In a game that emphatically restored the notion that Allister Coetzee’s men can, when the mood takes them, at some point in the future be considered the equals of the all-conquering New Zealand All Blacks, the ghosts of the 57-0 defeat by this very same All Blacks side just three weeks ago were well and truly laid to rest.
What with the All Blacks having wrapped up the Rugby Championship with their win last weekend, this was supposed to be a dead rubber.
But not only would the Boks not have it, the All Blacks, who lost the influential Beauden Barrett and Nehe Milner-Skudder to injury in the first half, put in a response worthy of champions in quelling the hosts’ rebellion.
In the end, Newlands was treated to a wonderful toe-to-toe affair that had it all – three-tries apiece, passion, fearlessness, a 50-minute first half thanks to a staring contest well after the hooter had gone and a red card (Damian de Allende) five minutes from time.
In comfortably one of the best international games of the year, the Boks have to take credit for having the bloody mindedness to bring back the idea that they are the All Blacks’ greatest foes.
When they look at the tape, they’ll also find that their own mistakes (a charged-down kick, an intercept pass and an aimless up and under) gave the hosts all three of their tries.
Even though the score at the end was, considering the ghosts of Albany, a miserly 8-3 in favour of the visitors at half-time, it was a half long enough for a full game.
Not only did it last a full 50 minutes as both sides went tit-for-tat in all the exchanges, the 47 342 people crammed into this old soul of a stadium were treated to a game a heck of a lot more open than the scoreline suggested.
The Boks’ defence, which saw the men in green chase down everything in black as if it was making off with cellphones and wallets, was largely responsible for a margin much tighter than the match played in Albany a month ago.
In the first 22 minutes alone, the visitors had shelled four opportunities where defensive pressure, not to mention attitude, by the Springboks made them feel like they always needed an extra pass to be able to score.
That said, the Boks also created a lot of hard yakka for themselves by turning over the ball to a team that doesn’t kick such gifts away and the kind of kicking game that was so inaccurate it almost always meant they wouldn’t get possession back.
Thankfully, the Bok effort wasn’t solely based on putting their bodies on the line.
A big first scrum was followed by two scrumming on the angle penalties by Ruan Dreyer, with debutant tight head prop Wilco Louw’s introduction in the 51st minute suggesting the hosts’ scrum issues may well be a thing of the past.
The line-out, led by captain Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, was improved out of sight, with none of the gremlins that saw them lose five on their own throw-in last time.
Etzebeth didn’t only lead the aerial assault, he was the Boks’ menace and merchant of go-forward on the ground, with Steven Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Malcolm Marx lending their shoulders to the gain line cause.
Coetzee’s disjointed-looking loose-trio of Francois Louw, Siya Kolisi and Du Toit matched their much-vaunted New Zealand counterparts, with the former showing intelligence out of position and the latter proving his detractors about a lock playing at blindside wrong with a workaholic performance.
One man who would have left the arena with question marks would have been fly half Elton Jantjies, whose charged down kick, which led to the visitors’ first try, and missed penalty could well be said to be the difference on the scoreboard.