Cape Town – If you are a South African cursing, or bitterly mocking the Springboks for their late surrender to the All Blacks in a cracking Test match at Loftus, I would argue with some force that you are blinkered and ungenerous.
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Less than a year out from the 2019 World Cup, there’s a seriously compelling case for saying you should take huge heart from the illuminating first 75 minutes or thereabouts of the Rugby Championship encounter, rather than obsess too acidly over dramatic, game-flipping events in the final five on Saturday.
These Boks, under Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi’s respective care as coach and captain, are a team on a pronounced upward flight path … at an ideal juncture, really.
An increasing school of astute rugby analysts worldwide will be just beginning to come around to the possibility that New Zealand have peaked in this golden era for them - and prepared, at the same time, to credit South Africa as quite possibly the market-leading threat now to their long-time supremacy.
Could the All Blacks of this generation have another – unprecedented third in a row, if so – Webb Ellis Cup win in them? Well, of course they could.
There is still much that is so good and enviable about them, including the very qualities that saw them somehow eke out triumph from the brink of “death” in hostile, atmospheric and on-edge Pretoria.
But the gap on them is compressing: we saw hints in their shared British and Irish Lions series last year, but more recently the Boks’ ability to be immeasurably more than a nuisance to them has become a striking feature as well.
To measure the well-nigh indisputable Springbok resurgence against the fiercest of their rugby foes, it is instructive to compare their three most recent results against NZ with the trio immediately before that.
The last three have all been genuine rippers: both bilateral clashes now under the tutelage of Erasmus, which saw a two-point reverse at Loftus and two-point victory at Wellington, plus (and let’s give poor Allister Coetzee just a smidgeon of credit for it) the 25-24 loss in a Newlands nail-biter at the end of last year’s Championship.
Points for NZ in the period? 91. Points for SA? 90. Yes, it’s been that, electrifyingly tight.
Now weigh up those humdingers against the other, lamentable and record-breaking meeting in 2017 (0-57), and the respective encounters of 2016: 15-57 and 13-41.
Points for NZ? 155. Point for SA? 28.
The Boks just weren’t at the races in that bleak period; suddenly they are taking the All Blacks right to the wire.
Shh … is it perhaps even a good thing for longer-term purposes, too, that South Africa couldn’t quite get over the line on Saturday?
Had they done so – creating the first instance of NZ losing to the same team twice in a row since 2009, the last Bok Tri-Nations title win – the pressure would have been especially immense on the Boks as likeliest stoppers of the All Blacks’ lengthy World Cup mastery late next year.
This Loftus heartbreak will, I suspect, have had the impact of just tempering any Bok optimism, constructively, and making them as aware and complacency-free as ever of just how maddeningly difficult it is to knock over Kieran Read and his merry men.
I don’t believe it will have served up much, if any, psychological scarring on the home team.
Was this a “choke”?
My pretty staunch gut feeling is not -- not when so many of the same Bok personnel had been responsible for the defensive heroism and generally never-say-die attitude that had punctuated their own, unexpected win against the same opponents in the Cake Tin just three weeks earlier.
If anything, and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen reportedly picked up on this theme in his post-match press briefing at Loftus, the dominant Springboks played better and considerably more multi-dimensionally in this defeat than they had in Wellington where, on that occasion, they had instead been the slightly fortuitous victors – boot a little quirkily on the other foot, and all that.
These Boks actually took a step further up, in so many senses, in their development at Loftus rather than a wee stumble down one. (For the record, I had quietly feared beforehand that All Black retribution might have been more emphatic on the board.)
South Africa are no longer, it seems, simply polite and reverent losers to the New Zealanders. Rather, the result on Saturday will have hurt – and should only stiffen their ongoing resolve further – for the very reason that they had enthrallingly commanded so much of the play.
That is what is so exciting.
Plenty of young and inexperienced players, remember, punctuate this Bok squad, and there are still a useful further eight Tests or so for them, home or abroad, to bolster their street wisdom and the temperamental requirements for flourishing at the looming, premier jamboree in the Far East.
All that was missing on Saturday was the more apt final score.
These Springboks, marked by increasingly healthy competition in a swelling array of positions, are coming along just fine.
They are busy timing a charge very well indeed for RWC 2019.
Not many of us would have said that at the beginning of 2018 …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing