CAPE TOWN - THE result may not have gone their way, but the Springboks restored pride and respect to the jersey despite a heartbreaking 19-17 defeat to the All Blacks in Townsville on Saturday.
It was all blood and guts from the South Africans as they got stuck into the New Zealanders from the start.
They managed to disrupt the Kiwis’ rhythm on attack through a much-improved defensive effort, as they cut down the space and forced handling errors by being in the face of their opponents.
It looked like it could be a long night at the Queensland Country Bank Stadium for the Boks, though, when wing Will Jordan dotted down in the third minute.
It was a typical New Zealand try, with fullback Jordie Barrett making the initial surge forward after a number of kicks from the Boks, before hooker Codie Taylor cut the line and expertly fed Jordan to finish.
Siya Kolisi’s team got a lucky break soon afterwards, though, when a Faf de Klerk box-kick went too far, but left wing George Bridge somehow managed to fumble the ball, which saw Sbu Nkosi pick up the loose ball and canter over.
Two Handre Pollard penalties suddenly saw the South Africans 11-7 ahead after 14 minutes, and it was clear that the Boks were up for the fight.
The All Blacks, though, kept stretching the defence with ball-in-hand, shifting the contact points and using the inside pass to good effect.
When the Boks did get it right, though, they smashed the Kiwis backwards with double hits, with captain Kolisi prominent and fellow flank Kwagga Smith not far behind.
The swirling wind in Townsville meant that the box-kick tactic from De Klerk was effective, but he overdid it at times, especially when the Boks were inside the New Zealand half and with numbers out wide.
Jordie Barrett put the Kiwis back in front before halftime with two penalties, and a yellow card to Nkosi for a deliberate knock-down inside the 22 didn’t help the South Africans either.
Eben Etzebeth, though, saved the day with a lineout steal, and the world champions would’ve been relieved to prevent conceding another try before halftime, with the Kiwis 13-11 in front.
A clear effect of the Boks’ physicality was seeing the All Blacks change direction somewhat early in the second half as they used their forwards to rumble it up the middle a bit, in a bid to suck in defenders and create space out wide.
But the trick didn’t pay any dividends, with the Boks’ renowned rush defence and ability to scramble working a treat.
Lock Lood de Jager was immense in this regard, while No 8 Duane Vermeulen became more influential as the game wore on, and centres Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am kept David Havili and Rieko Ioane in check in midfield.
It was a nail-biting final quarter as first Pollard put the Boks in front with a three-pointer, followed by Jordie Barrett for the All Blacks, and the South African No 10 landed another with 12 minutes to go to put his team 17-16 ahead.
It was a battle of two contrasting styles in the closing stages, with the Boks sticking to their box-kick and rush-defence tactics, and the All Blacks looking for ball-in-hand, broken-field opportunities.
They virtually cancelled each other out, until the South Africans conceded a breakdown penalty that Jordie Barrett slotted with about two minutes ago to put the Kiwis 19-17 ahead.
The Boks launched one last attack from their own half, and made it to the New Zealand 10-metre line, but Franco Mostert lost the ball in contact.
It was an unfortunate end to a gallant fight from Jacques Nienaber’s men, and a cliff-hanger worthy of the 100th Test between the two teams.
Springboks 17 – Try: Sbu Nkosi. Penalties: Handre Pollard (4).
All Blacks 19 – Try: Will Jordan. Conversion: Jordie Barrett (1). Penalties: Jordie Barrett (4).