For sheer drama and the full gamut of emotions, from deep despair to unbridled euphoria, there have been few rugby Tests to rival the epic match at Ellis Park on Saturday – it was the greatest come-from-behind victory in Springbok history.
Trailing 3-24 after 17 shell-shocked minutes, the collective heart of the nation sank and nightmarish visions arose of this young Springbok team being condemned to a similar 53-3 humiliation as that suffered at the hands of a different England side in 2003.
Following the dismal performance against Wales in Washington, it was too awful to contemplate.
Instead of a new dawn it was a bleak sunset. Rassie Erasmus’ tenure as coach was off to the most disastrous start imaginable; Siya Kolisi’s hugely significant moment would be spoiled; the new caps would have their budding careers ruined, and the old hands called back would be ridiculed.
England’s dismemberment of the Springboks had been so clinical, so swift, so unexpected and worse, so easy, that I found myself wondering how I would be able to avoid a mood of utter depression in writing a post mortem.
Placed alongside the ham-handed bungling of the Welsh Test one could see no way back for the Boks; 21 points in arrears, three converted tries just to draw level, seemed an impossible margin to overturn.
That Siya and his men managed it not only got the new Springbok era back on track but ensured for the Test a place in the annals as one of the most memorable ever.
I had been puzzled by Erasmus’ handling of his first few weeks in charge. The Wales Test was an unnecessary curve-ball but I have to confess I struggled to grasp the logic of picking two completely different sides.
It seemed to demean the value of Test matches, to cheapen the jersey.
But all that changed through the gritty determination of a team that revealed the never-say-die attitude of old… and, who knows, perhaps even an element of mysticism that the magic of Madiba in a No 6 jersey still permeates the place.
Faf de Klerk was the flint that provided the spark (I still wonder why he was discarded). The returning elders Duane Vermeulen and Willie le Roux were magnificent, as were homeboys Handré Pollard (surely the flyhalf debate is now settled) and Tenda Mtawarira. And the replacements turned the screws just when it was needed.
The three debutants, Sbu Nkosi, RG Snyman and Aphiwe Dyantyi showed themselves to be inspired selections.
Most of all, though, one must give credit to Siya Kolisi. As Jean de Villiers meaningfully reminded us afterwards – when a side overturns a 21-point deficit a lot of the credit accrues to the leader.
The margin wiped out represents the greatest comeback in Springbok history; surpassing an 18-point deficit (5-23 after 67 minutes) overturned by Gary Teichmann’s Boks against the All Blacks in Durban in 1998 to win 24-23.
Prior to that, South Africa came back from 14 points down to beat Wales 28-20 at Wembley in 1998 and from 13 points behind (12-25) to beat Scotland in Durban in 2003.
It was good to be able to cheer again, but the Boks need to quickly switch from deserved euphoria to sensible practicality because there were still too many flaws. England scored five tries, defensive structures were found wanting, tackles were missed, too many passes were misdirected and the opposition were let back into the game when it should have been closed out.
On another day silly turnovers, bad passes, brainless chances taken, exposing the ball and things like Ivan van Zyl’s failure to simply put the ball into touch with three minutes left to play (which presented Maro Itoje and Johnny May with tries) could be more damaging.
In the end, the helmsman miraculously managed to avoid the iceberg and we can confidently talk of a new dawn. Eddie Jones will be plotting his Bloemfontein gambit and England will again be formidable, but for now the momentum is with the Boks.
Well done to all. You made us proud.