The Springboks produced a Lion out of the hat as they stormed back from being 19-3 down to beat Ireland 32-26 in an epic Castle Lager Incoming Tours match in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Inspired by test debutant Ruan Combrinck and a host of his fellow Lions stars, the Boks clawed their way back from the worst 40 minutes of rugby in their recent history to desperately keep the test series alive ahead of the Port Elizabeth decider next Saturday.
As comebacks go it was inspirational, and would have made many South African rugby fans say “I told you so” as it was the form players of Super Rugby that finally got a chance to showcase their skills that saved the game.
But while the Lions players served as the inspiration, one could also argue that it was a return to finally getting the basics right, a return to the physicality required and an injection of pace in the right areas that finally got the Boks over the line.
After staring down the chasm of their first series loss to a Home Nation after 60 odd minutes the Boks produced the most telling backs-to-the-wall final 20 to save not only their blushes but to get some belief back into the national team again.
And while it is fine to celebrate the win for the remarkable one that it was, there will be several sobering thoughts for the management on Monday as they contemplate powering on to a series win in a week’s time.
To produce the first 40 minutes as the Boks did would have seen them take double the 19 Ireland dished out had they been playing the All Blacks at Ellis Park.
Everything the Boks promised in their build-up this week was dispatched with an opening stanza that bordered on the ludicrous it was so bad. To think the horror show dished up in the opening 40 was that of a professional international top team would be pushing it.
The Boks are clearly a team in transition, but the basic errors made in the first half would be of massive concern for the coaching team with bigger challenges yet to come. From knock-ons, to poor decision-making, everything that reared its head in Cape Town was back and worse than before. With 15 players the Irish managed to easily counter everything the Boks threw at them, and their simple approach to play off the Bok mistakes paid dividends as flyhalf Paddy Jackson added the scoreboard pressure.
The Boks were falling foul to some excellent Irish kicking tactics as well, with Willie le Roux and Lwazi Mvovo getting pinned down on the left hand side, and Ireland gaining possession and territory from their poor exits.
Devon Toner scored a crucial try in the first half that came after Mvovo lost the ball in the air, and Ireland capitalised, with a scrambling Bok defence not able to control it at all.
At 19-3 at halftime, the Springboks not only looked buried, but the whole of South African rugby looked in deep trouble as well.
But the introduction of Combrinck and Whiteley not only served to up the pace for the Boks, but also instilled the confidence in their teammates in an instant.
The exceptional form that Combrinck carried through from the Super Rugby season filtered through from his first touch of the ball, and suddenly, as the Lions have done so much in the dark days of Super Rugby this year, the mood and momentum seemed to shift.
Combrinck was exceptional, running hard and fast, and brought a physicality that made the Irish stop. For the first time in the test series, they stuttered, then fell aside.
A few minutes after his first run Ireland made their first cardinal error – a poor clearance kick that landed in Willie le Roux’s hands, and with no defensive lines formed, Le Roux had a field day finding space to surge to the 22. The offload to Combrinck was perfect but the winger needed to still beat Paddy Jackson, which he did with ease, running over the poor flyhalf to confirm these Irish aren’t as tough as they seem.
But the chinks in the Bok armour were still there. A hurried kickoff clearance, without any pillars for protection, saw Faf de Klerk’s clearance charged down. Ireland capitalised and won the penalty, went to the corner with Jamie Heaslip mauling his way over with way too much ease for comfort.
Still, the sands continued shifting and there was a new spring in the Bok step. Another Combrinck run down the right flank and Ireland were reeling. The ball made its way to the left, where Whiteley stepped in and out, flummoxing the defence to score a great team try.
The Boks were still two scores behind and time was running out, but there was a sense of purpose in the team again, a sense of responsibility. And for the first time this international season, the Boks played with intent.
A shrewd tactical move to up the physicality paid off immediate dividends as Pieter-Steph du Toit moved to the flank and Siya Kolisi disappeared to make way for Franco Mostert’s debut. Minutes later the Boks won a free kick, and Du Toit powered his way over with Mostert moving him over the tryline like a mislaid piece of airport baggage.
The Boks were close, but not in the lead, but they were running with purpose. The body position problems that compounded them for 120 minutes were gone, they made metres and Ireland quickly started falling off tackles. De Klerk’s quick service and Jantjies’ vision in the last 10 minutes were crucial as they found the space they needed and in possibly the most pleasing aspect of all, Damian De Allende finally was put one on one with his opposite number and beat the tackle with ease to get the Boks in the lead.
As the clock counted down and the fans celebrated, the Boks went into overdrive and won a big penalty on the halfway line. Jantjies made no mistake to drill it home and complete the game win for the Boks, saving both embarrassment and giving coach Allister Coetzee his first win as Bok coach.
The Boks may have started off like lambs, but on a chilly night at Ellis Park, they finished like Lions. Coetzee will have taken note of that.
South Africa – try: Ruan Combrinck, Waren Whiteley, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Damian de Allende. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (3) Penalties: Elton Jantjies (2)
Ireland – try: Devon Toner, Jamie Heaslip. Conversions: Paddy Jackson (2). Penalties: Jackson (4)