It might have been the most agonising of defeats at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday but by shattering the perception of the All Blacks’ invincibility the Springboks have reached a new base camp in the long climb back to rugby’s peak.
Recently opinion out of New Zealand was that only two teams, the All Blacks and Ireland, had a realistic chance of winning next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Previously Clive Woodward had included England in the mix in a long-term prediction while others pointed out that, “Australia always manage to put out a good side in the World Cup and don’t write off the French.”
Notably the Springboks, two-time winners of the Webb Ellis Cup, were not counted into the reckoning as possible champions in the Land of the Rising Sun.
That has changed in the last dramatic weeks of the Rugby Championship since the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington and managed to dominate the world champions for 70-plus minutes before having victory snatched away at Loftus Versfeld.
Ironically the defeat revealed more about the Boks’ improvement than the somewhat lucky away win.
Recently, the All Blacks have seldom been so comprehensively outplayed in most facets of the game and made to look so rattled.
That they managed to find the resolve to mount an epic push for victory in the last five minutes of course speaks volumes for their attitude and belief in their systems, but they will know (skipper Kieran Read has conceded as much) that this time it was they who were favoured by fortune.
Pieter-Steph du Toit was harshly penalised for lifting Ofa Tu’ungafasi off his feet as he tried to mount a counter ruck, because for once the All Blacks had too little support behind the big substitute, and this allowed the visitors to establish a bridgehead by kicking to touch which led to Scott Barrett’s try.
The capricious bounce of the rugby ball led directly to Ardie Savea’s winning touch-down.
Richie Mo’unga would have had his heart in his mouth when his kick for touch fell in the field of play but luckily for the All Blacks the ball bounced into touch to give them an attacking lineout. A hop infield and an improbable “double” over their arch-rivals might have been the Boks’ to savour.
Still, the two matches against the Kiwis ended up at 66 points apiece and Siya Kolisi’s men showed that they have the armoury and will to sack the black fortress.
Rassie Erasmus’s first year as coach has resulted, so far, in five wins and five defeats but the W column shows victories over England (2), New Zealand and Australia… top World Cup contenders all.
Along the way there have been important improvements for the players and the coaches.
Awarding Kolisi the captaincy was a masterstroke, on so many levels, and the Stormers flank has responded by settling into the role with commendable maturity while his contribution to the loose forward mix has gradually improved.
Kolisi, with his strong carries, turned in his most telling showing at Loftus amid signs that the Boks are coming to terms with the patterns Erasmus and his assistants are trying to imprint.
The team’s defence has improved while individuals such as Malcolm Marx, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Faf de Klerk and Steven Kitshoff were genuinely world-class.
Others such as Handre Pollard (whose goal-kicking on Saturday was superb), Willie le Roux, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende and Eben Etzebeth edged back to their best while there were the exciting debuts of the like of Aphiwe Dyantyi and R.G. Snyman.
The Boks are still far from the finished article – their kicking can, and must, improve, they need “to look after the ball” better and eliminate an enduring tendency for the backline to run sideways. But, compared to the previous two seasons, there are reasons for optimism on the way to the next bivouac up the big mountain they set out to climb.
England, France, Scotland and Wales await in November, then there will be a truncated Rugby Championship in 2019 with the World Cup (from September 20 to November 2) now less than a year away… when South Africa’s first game will be against the All Blacks.
At the start of the year it was foolish to contemplate, but this group must now have the conviction that they know how to beat the old enemy.