DURBAN – Success in sport does not get much sweeter than vanquishing the All Blacks on their home paddock, as they quaintly call it. The country goes into mourning on the Sunday, the inquests begin on the Monday, and until they next win a match, it is the Land of the Long Black Shroud.
It underscores how good the Kiwis are at rugby that there is national crisis when the All Blacks have a losing sequence of... one match in a row! Coaches get sacked for it. Ask John Mitchell, who paid dearly for losing a World Cup semi-final to Australia in 2003.
South Africa is not radically dissimilar, even if the rugby public has grown accustomed to defeat in the professional era. Heavy defeats, especially to the All Blacks, still spawn anger and derision. Social media was tailor-made to fuel national despair... smart phones fuel and express the public sentiment.
But it goes the other way too. Saturday’s simply astonishing Springbok victory has perked up the public mood immensely. The petrol price hike suddenly did not seem so bad; the dog was spared a kick; folks walked into the office on Monday with a smile and not a snarl.
The pull of the Springbok remains that strong. It was not just the rare win over the Old Foe but the way in it was forged... the stuff of legend - hearts-on-sleeves and blood and guts all the way.
The outbreak of euphoria in so many quarters was a wonderful reminder of the tremendous tool sport can play in nation-building. And the more wins we have of this ilk, the further the rugby gospel can spread in this country.
The impact of the victory was all the greater because few saw it coming, but then it was interesting to hear Matthew Pearce, the SuperSport commentator who called the game in the Cake Tin, say on radio this week that he had a strong hunch the Boks would win having seen the eyebrow-raising intensity and focus with which the team had trained.
It makes sense because what we saw was a team that had been building towards this match since June. Tackle it as if it really was do-or-die, must win... call it what you like. The way the players chucked themselves into tackles with scant regard for their bodies was as blood-curdling for spectators as it was blood-inducing for the All Blacks. Their doctor would have had a busy night.
But before we get too carried away, and at the risk of being the party-pooper, it must be pointed out that this victory was also so unexpected because the Boks had been so dire against the Wallabies the week before.
The challenge now for Rassie Erasmus is to elicit this desperate desire to win from his players in every Test. This win has to be seized by Erasmus as a catalyst for growth for the Springboks; the invaluable shot in the arm cannot be squandered, as was a similar opportunity in June when the Boks won the first two Tests against England, only for Erasmus to surrendered the initiative by sacrificing winning momentum on the altar of depth-building and experimentation.
To give the coach the benefit of the doubt, there has been some benefit from the changes he made but you would have to say that this mighty win should now be seen as a watershed - Erasmus needs to cease using Test matches as a laboratory to do tests and must now stick to his best match-23 and infuse in them the same die-hard approach that was wonderfully on show in Wellington.
It is relevant to go back a year to the Boks’ exceptional performance at Newlands, where they did everything but beat the All Blacks in a thrilling Test match. The Boks had turned the corner, we thought. One month later they were abjectly poor in losing 38-3 to Ireland.
And in 2008, the Boks beat the All Blacks in Dunedin but on their return to South Africa they were thoroughly outplayed by the same team in losing 19-0 in Cape Town.
The current Boks returned home on Sunday night having had affirmation that they can beat anybody anywhere.
The trick now is for Erasmus to reinforce this in Port Elizabeth against the Wallabies next week before the Big One, the return match against the All Blacks in Pretoria. It is a tough ask to do the double on the world champions, even on SA soil, but what we do expect is more of the same devil-may-care effort and commitment.