Just when so many were writing the Springboks off, the world champions produced a famous performance that has dramatically ensured this year can already be deemed a success, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The 31-29 victory over the All Blacks on Saturday was undeniably well deserved, and thankfully ensured some seriously dodgy officiating didn’t become the overwhelming focal point.
What ultimately needs to be the focus is that the Springboks delivered their most dynamic, holistic and effective Test performance since the 2019 World Cup final.
The 80-odd minutes of thrilling action against New Zealand was better than anything the Boks produced against the British & Irish Lions, but the context of that series should not be forgotten.
In beating the Lions despite some extraordinary challenges, the Springboks achieved their primary aim for the year.
After the physical and emotional toll of that series, it was always going to be nigh on impossible for the Boks to back that up with a Rugby Championship title.
Back-to-back losses against Australia revealed that the Boks were far still from their best after losing a year of international rugby in 2020, but the central spotlight was always going to be on the manner in which they fronted up against the All Blacks.
Last weekend, a belligerent and brutal display of traditional South African rugby brought the Springboks within inches of a historic win in the 100th Test between the two arch-rivals.
However, what the Boks produced in the final Rugby Championship battle was immensely meaningful for more reasons than just ending up on the winning side.
What set it apart was the fact that on this occasion, the Springboks beautifully varied their play. They didn’t neglect strengths like the kicking game (27 kicks were put in play), while the lineout, scrum and maul were excellent as ever.
This was the foundation but, all around it, the Boks brought subtlety, intent and direction to what they offered and threatened.
The rewards were telling. On Saturday, the South Africans made 378 metres compared to the All Blacks’ 312, while completing 86 carries to 82.
It’s also not very often in these match-ups that the Kiwis are forced to make more tackles, but this time they were (120 to 109).
There were moments of magic such as Lukhanyo Am’s offload, the impact of Frans Steyn – including his superb 50-22 kick that ultimately led to Makazole Mapimpi’s try, the stunning breakdown steal of Duane Vermeulen and the drop goal by Elton Jantjies.
And while there were still plenty of errors, a forgettable performance from Willie le Roux and too many soft penalties, this was far closer to a complete performance from the Springboks.
What we saw in addition to the usual Bok DNA was attacking set plays, some superb contesting at the lineouts, counter-rucking power at breakdown, variety in the running lines, some new-look attacking shapes, and a fearlessness to take the All Blacks on.
Coming into Saturday’s game, the Boks had managed just the solitary win over the All Blacks in the past 11 Test matches.
Yet, in the last seven games, the margin of victory has never been more than 10 points, and it’s more evident than ever just how closely matched these two great rivals are.
But by finishing the job to get a much-needed victory over New Zealand on Saturday, the Springboks have not only achieved the second-biggest goal of this year, but also found a style of balanced play that is far closer to their true DNA.
There were also meaningful lessons in the value offered by freshening up the team with the introduction of Steyn and Jantjies, in particular, and as the Boks continue to progress under Jacques Nienaber, the head coach will have taken note of how impactful some personnel changes can be at times.
This was a big day and a big win for the Springboks.
No matter what happens on the end-of-year tour now, the series triumph over the Lions, and certainly this latest demonstration of balanced, winning rugby against the All Blacks have made this year a success.