It was absolute heartbreak for the Springboks as Ardie Savea scored and Richie Mo’unga slotted the decisive conversion at the death to hand the All Blacks a 32-30 Rugby Championship triumph at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
The Boks were leading comfortably at 30-13 with 20 minutes to go after Cheslin Kolbe forced his way over in the right-hand corner, and it looked like the South Africans were going to pull off a second consecutive victory over the world champions.
But Rieko Ioane started the comeback in the 62nd minute with a five-pointer, and Scott Barrett put the result in doubt by dotting down with four minutes to go.
The Boks conceded a penalty inside the Kiwi half soon after the restart, which allowed the All Blacks to boot themselves back on attack to launch one final assault.
And, after hitting away at the line, it was Savea who slid over, and replacement flyhalf Mo’unga showed enormous temperament to bang over the conversion for the victory.
The Boks’ poor strike-rate in the first half came back to haunt them right at the end.
It was almost a case of ‘slow poison’ from Siya Kolisi’s team as they held fire in the opening 40 minutes.
The 50 000-capacity grew increasingly frustrated as the Boks wasted over 70 percent possession and territory to go into the break at 6-6.
The South Africans kept things tight, as coach Rassie Erasmus employed a conservative game plan that revolved around rumbling the ball up with the forwards, and using centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel as battering rams.
The ploy was clearly deliberate, as the Boks were wary of making mistakes out wide and handing the dangerous All Black back-three of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Ioane any free possession in broken play.
Halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard also used the boot liberally as the Boks made sure they played in the All Black half.
But with so much possession, they should’ve had more than just the six points on the board, and hardly brought wings Aphiwe Dyantyi and Cheslin Kolbe into the game.
That all changed in the second, though. Fullback Willie le Roux sparked the revival with a thrilling break up the middle, and with the All Black defence all over the place, Steven Kitshoff showed good hands to get the ball quickly to Kriel.
The much-maligned Blue Bulls centre had a first half to forget, as his decision-making let him down again.
But this time around, he stepped past two defenders before putting down the accelerator to score, which saw the Loftus crowd erupt.
Pollard converted and added a penalty soon afterwards to stretch the lead to 16-6.
The Boks were operating on the front foot, and then came a huge moment as captain Kolisi burst through two tackles and offload to a flying De Allende, who rounded off untouched.
But in a helter-skelter 10 minutes, the All Blacks hit back as hooker Codie Taylor broke clear and found an open Aaron Smith to finish – although the last pass looked forward.
The Boks reclaimed their 17-point advantage on the hour-mark, when Kolbe stepped inside Beauden Barrett and was awarded the try after the TMO had a look, and it appeared to be game over at 30-13.
The visitors are not the reigning world and Rugby Championship winners for nothing, though.
Having already clinched the title against Argentina last week, it would’ve been easier for them to just go through the motions in front of a hostile Loftus crowd.
But Kieran Read and his team never gave up, with Ioane strolling over in the 62nd minute to begin the comeback, before Scott Barrett and Savea clinched an enthralling triumph.
The Boks didn’t deserve to lose, but the laboured approach in the first half will be a valuable lesson to them that they have to adopt a positive, attacking approach at all times if they want to be World Cup contenders.
Springboks 30 – Tries: Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe. Conversions: Handré Pollard (3). Penalties: Pollard (3).
All Blacks 32 – Tries: Aaron Smith, Rieko Ioane, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea. Conversions: Richie Mo’unga (3). Penalties: Beauden Barrett (2).