at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
At FNB Stadium
John Smit dropped to one knee exhausted and disbelieving as referee Nigel Owens blew the whistle to bring an end to a match that was so close to being the ultimate 100th anniversary party for the Springbok captain.
A last-minute try by Israel Dagg gave the All Blacks a 29-22 win, wrapping up yet another Vodacom Tri-nations series win, but it was cruel on a Springbok team that had scrapped every inch of the way, fading in the last quarter.
It was cruel on Smit, who has been an immense statesman for his country. Even his opposite number, Richie McCaw, who also scored a try a try three minutes from time to put the All Blacks level, felt it was harsh.
"Even though I?m happy that we won, rugby is a cruel game," said McCaw. "As All Blacks we have the utmost respect for the way the Springboks play the game and the way that John has captained them. That he?s got 100 caps for your country is an amazing achievement."
Smit had been given the honour of running on to the field ahead of his teammates before the game, and he stood alone on the pitch for what seemed an age, waiting for his teammates, his hands on his hips, his heart beating, emotion flooding through him. Victor Matfield hugged him, Juan Smith shook his hand ? this game was for their captain, a man who had taken them from the pain of 2003 through the Tri-Nations win of 2004, the World Cup in 2007 and last year?s quite extraordinary run against the British and Irish Lions and another Tri-Nations.
"I had a lot of emotion when I was standing out there alone," said Smit. "The reception was terrific and I can?t thank the people here enough for that. It?s just a pity that we couldn?t get the win."
The errors that had afflicted the Springboks in the three games on the away leg were gone.
Schalk Burger was a wrecking machine, Juan de Jongh did not miss a tackle, Jean de Villiers showed his critics that he remains a force and Francois Hougaard must have come close to winning man of the match on his first start for the Springboks, Juan Smith was back with a bang ? and a wallop ? while JP Pietersen pulled off two try-saving tackles that had echoes of his vital tackle against Fiji in the quarterfinals of the 2007 World Cup in Marseille.
Gio Aplon epitomised the sacrifice the Boks were willing to make for their captain. His tackle on Mils Muliaina in the first half was a stunner, driving him back five metres, until Steyn gave away an easy penalty by not coming in through the gate. Apparently he jumped over the fence, which isn?t good in rugby, but neither is sitting on it, which is something the Springboks have suggested referees do not do when it comes to officiating against the All Blacks.
Nigel Owens, the Welsh referee, is not a man who could be accused of that. He was the first ? and is still the only, unless I missed a closet being opened recently ? top referee who is openly gay.
It takes a brave man to do that in this most macho of sports, and on Saturday he showed that he could do macho as well as anyone. As Jimmy Cowan, the All Black scrumhalf was being savaged in the tackle by Smith, they bulldozed over Owens, leaving him in a dazed heap on the floor.
He took his time to get up and Smith, the big gentle man from Bloemfontein, looked on in concern and offered him an apology not once, but twice.
Owens had to have a thick skin in the second half after the crowd, incensed at a penalty ? rightfully given ? for the All Blacks, began to chant: "Ref, you?re kak." Ah, a good, old- fashioned South African saying in a brand-new South African stadium.
Don?t expect to see a major Test played at Ellis Park ever again after the success of Saturday match. This was a magnificent match at a magnificent stadium in front of a record crowd of over 90000. The ending was less than a magnificent captain deserved, but, rugby can be cruel like that.