After trailing 10-16 in a bruising first half the Springboks dug deep to overwhelm a very intelligent tactical Australian opposition 22-19.
The South African Captain, John Smit, was injured early on; he left the field in the opening sortie. Springbok Pierre Spies was yellow carded after 36 minutes and his team had to make do without his power and might for a vital 10 minutes spent in the sin bin. Australian stars George Gregan and Stephen Larkham were in top form, but both made some rare unforced errors, particularly in the second half.
The Springboks were also missing match winner Brian Habana (who has an injured knee), the Springboks put the first penalty (Montgomery) and first try (Jaques Fourie) on the scoreboard. Matt Giteau made a determined surge to score beside the posts for the Aussies. Then it came down to a series of penalities between Percy Montgomery (3)for the Boks, and Stirling Mortlock (4) for the Wallabies.
After plenty of intensity and tension, the Boks found themselves in the second half trailing 16-19, with only 15 minutes of match time remaining. Wave upon wave of green fell against the Australian back line, but the desperate attacks were pinned down or held back each time, despite being so deep in Aussie territory. The Australians tackled compulsively to stem the tide.
At this stage 20 year old ex Grey College match winner Frans Steyn came onto the field. An impact player, the big young man was on the field for only a few minutes before launching a drop goal to level the scores. With very little match time remaining tempers flared; both sides continued to thump and test one another. Then the winger, Steyn, received a deepish kick, turned on his heel and hoofed the winning drop kick.
But it was a win the home team earned. The South Africans had dominated play in the second half forcing the Aussies to defend, and making their opponents tackle at a ratio of 1:3. The Aussie tackle quota at full time exceeded 150 (while the South Africans were around 50). Australian David Campese made the comment that South Africa had been perhaps too inclined to kick away possession at vital turns of play, but the innovative Butch James couldn't be blamed when there were often few other options to choose from on the table.
It has to be said that going into the next game (South Africa vs New Zealand) the Boks will need to raise their game even more. Consistency is crucial, and to beat the All Blacks they will need passion and character. Beyond the Tri-Nations, with their sights on the Rugby World Cup in September, the Boks will need to learn and maintain consistency with a few to developing momentum. The South Africans have now won 4 consecutive matches, but every successful team needs a strong foundation, and this means a stable management family.
In South African rugby, cricket, swimming and other sports, what undermines the performance of athletes and players is the background of squabbling officials, politics and overall pressure brought to bear directly on managers. Sprinbbok coach Jake White has had a difficult and distracting week, having recently had a scuffle with a pony newspaper journalist in a bar, aswell as the commotion involved in the on-again-off-again meeting with the President. This meeting never materialised thanks to the intervention of the South African Rugby Union (who felt White had not arranged the meeting through the proper channels).
Additional instability is created in South African sport when players are expected to accomodate protocols designed by outsiders, where officials expect the artificial insertion of players in teams to represent a preconceived racial composition. This is unsettling, and at a high level, can mean that small difference in confidence, consistency, self belief and coming through in the end to win.
In the end it was a gutsy win. Now the Boks have a week to regroup and advance along the steep gradient of their learning curve. They must learn from this game, because their opponents in the next crunching Tri-Nations encounter will be the mighty All Blacks.