The Springboks' second-half performance at Ellis Park has to be dissected as much as the result has to be celebrated, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
There’s a story that gets told often about Tiger Woods – in his prime – and South Africa’s Ernie Els, whose prime coincided with Tiger’s domination of golf.
Els, playing incredible golf, had finished second – again – to a man who somehow would find something to beat off the Big Easy.
The tale goes that after another near miss, Ernie took to the driving range and Tiger, seeing him clubbing the ball miles, turned to his caddy and said something to the effect of: ‘Just one more time … If we beat him just one more time then just maybe he will go away.’
Els, typically South African in his belief, was the one player with the game and the fight to challenge Tiger. But he lacked the consistency of Tiger and his best game was more a one in five success against Tiger than a one in two.
Ditto the Springboks of the past few years. Heyneke Meyer has built a squad that in most eras would be the No 1 team in the world but these supremely talented Springboks have had to contend with an All Blacks squad, whose results and achievements are unlikely to be matched.
Each time the Boks had got close the All Blacks seemed to find something. They’d produce the magic moment and win when it seemed impossible.
The Springboks, beaten five times in succession, knew that the best chance to beat the All Blacks would be at Ellis Park. The Rugby Championship had been decided. The All Blacks were playing their third-choice flyhalf and their imposing lock Brodie Retalick was not playing.
Ellis Park was sold out and the desperation to win was exclusive to the Boks. A nation willed them to win. The rest of the rugby world added to that energy.
But the All Blacks overturned a 24-13 deficit to take the lead 25-24 after 72 minutes and when they won a turnover scrum with 90 seconds to play, the game seemed lost. It was an Ernie versus Tiger moment and I thought that this would be the result that would crush the Springboks’ spirit and that psychologically they would never come back from such a result.
If not at Ellis Park under those circumstances then when?
It took repeated big screen replays (courtesy of SuperSport) and the roar of the crowd for referee Wayne Barnes to overturn his decision and to award a penalty to the Boks.
Pat Lambie kicked a miracle 55m effort and the Bok defended their line from the kick-off for 60 seconds to win a turnover penalty and beat the All Blacks.
But for the TMO referral (and it was the right decision to penalise Liam Messam) the mood in South Africa would be very different and the second-half Bok performance would have been the only talking point.
The questions would have been how the Boks surrendered a 24-13 advantage? Further questions would have been asked of the premeditated substitutions of Bismarck du Plessis and Handré Pollard, who was magnificent in scoring two tries and pretty much everything he did on attack and defence.
The Boks’ conditioning would again have been under the spotlight. The hosts were hanging on and the All Blacks were in overdrive going into the final 10 minutes. The team that had travelled from Argentina and arrived in Johannesburg on Wednesday, trailed 24-13 after 50 minutes and had already won the Rugby Championship for a third successive year … that team was on the charge as if they were the ones being inspired by a capacity Ellis Park crowd.
Those questions still have to be asked.
The Boks simply had to win – and they did. Saturday night was rightly about celebration and just enjoying the feeling of beating the world’s best team. That was Saturday night.
But when Meyer analyses the match, he will know that South Africa’s best 50 minutes was a TMO referral away from not being good enough to beat New Zealand’s imposing last 25 minutes.
Again, if not at Ellis Park given the circumstance, then when.
SuperSport analyst and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett nailed it when he beamed with delight at the Bok win and said that the Springboks had deserved to win a game they had dominated for the first 50 minutes, but that they had not won the World Cup on Saturday.
He said that had the match been played anywhere else the match-day producer would not have been as vigilant for an off-the-ball incident. He pleaded for perspective.
There was joy in victory and with the win comes hope and added belief that anything is possible in a one-off Test and that the Bok players now had a tangible as a reference when it came to beating the All Blacks.
But (and here’s the big but) New Zealand – the world champions, Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship winners – were the ones to create the try-scoring chances to turn a 24-13 deficit into a potential match-winning 25-24 win.
The Boks relied on defensive desperation to repel the All Blacks in the final five minutes, but it took a reckless challenge from an All Black and a TMO penalty decision to break the All Blacks.
Lambie’s composure was immense and so too the fight of the Boks.
Yet, the Boks were a kick away from another Ernie versus Tiger moment and it’s the second half falling away that has to be dissected as much as the result has to be celebrated.
Every Bok supporter should feel fantastic about the result, but equally uneasy about what transpired between the 55th and 78th minutes.
Patriotism is a wonderful thing, but perspective in this instance is more powerful in the context of the growth of these Boks.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images