The manner of victory in Nelspruit should be valued far more than the result, writes JON CARDINELLI.
When it comes to Test victories, fans tend to remember the convincing performances and one-sided scorelines, while the players themselves are more inclined to remember the ugly ones.
Indeed, when I sat down with Jean de Villiers in Paris last November and asked the Bok captain to reflect on the growth of his team, he cited the narrow wins against Scotland in Nelspruit and Argentina in Mendoza as especially significant.
Fans will remember the resounding 44-10 win against Italy in the first match of the 2013 Test season, a fixture that witnessed the introduction of the incomparable Willie le Roux. They may also remember the first match of the Rugby Championship in which the Boks scored nine tries and a record 73 points against Argentina.
The matches that followed those big victories were infinitely less satisfying in terms of points scored. The Boks battled against Scotland in Nelspruit, and then against Argentina in Mendoza.
Nevertheless, coach Heyneke Meyer and De Villiers said afterwards that something had been gained from those struggles, and it was a point that De Villiers reiterated at the end of the 2013 season. Even when the chips are down, even when this Bok side is not playing its best rugby, the players have maintained their self belief and managed to grind out a win.
Privately, Meyer has said the Boks were fortunate that De Villiers did not break down with injury over the course of the 2013 season. Meyer needed De Villiers to inspire that self belief on the pitch. It's fair to say that the Boks may not have enjoyed such success in 2013 – the two defeats to the All Blacks aside – had De Villiers been absent.
De Villiers finally broke down with a serious injury last month, and so Meyer was forced to explore other captaincy options. He found an excellent one in his old protegé, Victor Matfield, who then vindicated the selection by playing such a crucial leadership role in the two-Test series against Wales.
Some fans will want to forget the Boks' second Test against Wales in Nelspruit. The Boks certainly won't. They may have failed to deliver on their promise of consistency, but they did show a great deal of ticker.
They found themselves in a situation where they were 17-0 down after 22 minutes, but fought back to within three points before half-time. They were then 13 behind in the 65th minute, but found something extra in the dying stages to clinch a 31-30 win.
Meyer said afterwards that it was the best win of his tenure, and that statement needs to taken in context. In those first 20 minutes, the Boks played their worst quarter of rugby since Meyer took the reins as head coach. But how the team responded after that would be telling.
Wales were the exact opposite. They played the better rugby for most of the contest, but lacked the essential belief to clinch the result. Wales may have lost by a single point in Nelspruit, but they are no closer to beating one of the big southern hemisphere teams now than they were at the start of the tour.
The Boks would have gained a lot from that outing in Nelspruit. The obvious lesson is the need for consistency over 80 minutes, but what they achieved in that comeback would have added to their existing belief.
They will know that if they are ever in a similar situation again, they have what it takes to hit back and steal the result. On Saturday that never-say-die attitude won them a match against Wales. In 2015, this could be what wins them a big game at the World Cup.
Leadership always plays a crucial role in these come-from-behind victories, and in 2013 it was the calm influence of De Villiers that saw the Boks through some tough times. In only the second Test of 2014, it's been Matfield that has used all of his experience as an international player to steel his charges.
Even when the Boks were trailing Wales by 13 points in Nelspruit, there was never a sense of panic. There was no desperation, and in this respect, Matfield must receive due plaudits.
The Boks' leadership core will be stronger when De Villiers returns from injury in August, and no doubt the team will lean on the likes of De Villiers and Matfield when they compete at next year's World Cup.
As De Villiers said in 2013, it's the experience of coming through these tough games with a win, of rebounding from a seemingly hopeless situation to prevail that can be more valuable than a nine-try, 70-point victory. While the Boks still have plenty to polish before the Rugby Championship, there's no denying that the comeback against Wales was special. It shouldn't be forgotten anytime soon.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images
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