The Springboks regrouped timeously enough after halftime to avoid the ultimate embarrassment, but their 30-17 win over Scotland in their second Castle Lager Incoming Series test at Mbombela Stadium will have left coach Heyneke Meyer with plenty to think about.
Indeed, although beaten in the end, it was Scotland who would have ended the game feeling the happier of the teams, for theirs was a rousing display and a vast improvement on the performance they delivered when defeated for the first time ever by Samoa seven days previously.
It was on the basis of that Scotland defeat and the Springboks’ emphatic win over Italy later in the day at Kings Park on the first Saturday of the series, that the home side started this game as such overwhelming favourites.
But like they have done so often on the other side of the equator in Edinburgh over the past decade, the Scots gave the Boks a much better game than expected and it led to Jean de Villiers’ men losing composure.
If you didn’t see the game, don’t read the final score as a completely accurate reflection of what happened. What might be more pertinent in telling the story of this match than the final score is to say that with six minutes to go, there were only three points in it as the Boks led 20-17.
It was then that replacement flyhalf Patrick Lambie stepped up to kick a penalty to make it a six point buffer.
And then right on the final whistle, with the Scots out on their feet after throwing the kitchen sink at the bigger and stronger South Africans for nearly 80 minutes, young centre Jan Serfontein dropped in to score his first of what should be many tries for the Boks to give the scoreline a slightly flattering look.
That the game would effectively be in the balance until the last minute of the match would not have been anticipated beforehand.
And neither would the 10-6 halftime Scotland lead, or the 17-6 lead four minutes into the second half. An 11-point lead with not that much more than half an hour to go – surely that was a joke?
But it wasn’t, and in the end the Scots stretched the Boks and gave them a game. That may have been a good thing for the South Africans.
TIMELY WAKE-UP CALL
Although the Scots will be happy with the brave defeat, maybe it was the Boks who got more out of the game – in the sense that the way they struggled when unable to breach the gainline and knock the Scots back in the collisions was a timely wake-up call for the South Africans, who may have been drawn in by the hubris after last week’s game, where frankly some of the reaction was over the top.
The Boks, with their game-plan, are always ordinary when they don’t get thrust across the gainline and when they fail to dominate the first-phase battle.
And when the pressure was on in that first half it was much easier to see than it was in Durban why until relatively recently Meyer considered Willie le Roux a risky option at fullback.
In fact, considering the retention of the starting team was a departure from the stated intention at the start of the series, the cynical among us may even have wondered if that was Meyer’s reasoning – give all the new players another go and check to see if last week was reality or just an illusion.
Not that Le Roux deserves to be picked on for he did do some good things in the second half when the Boks were more in the game. And it was hardly the fault of the backline that the team struggled so much in the first half.
The breakdowns, an area of prime focus in this match, were one of the areas where the Boks fell significantly short – and Francois Louw should be able to go into married life on Sunday resting assured that his place in the Springbok team is secure.
Yes, of course Louw is an allrounder and has other attributes, but it’s his ball scavenging and ability to process the ball at the breakdown that is his biggest asset to the Boks.
When he’s not there they need someone like him, and while not an allrounder like Louw, Heinrich Brussow is surely the man who should be relied upon as back-up.
The Boks weren’t helped by losing Arno Botha, the designated big ball-carrying flanker, early in the game to a knee injury.
Siya Kolisi, the man who replaced him, deservedly won the man of the match award on debut for what he did with ball in hand, but the Boks definitely missed Botha’s brute strength.
The Bulls flanker’s role in setting his team on the road to victory in his debut match against Italy may have been undervalued. Kolisi played well, but the replacement wasn’t really like for like in terms of what they bring.
But full marks to the Scots for the way they pinpointed where the Boks needed to be fronted – and they did it.
Their defensive game was a massive improvement on the previous week against Samoa, with their linespeed giving the Boks little space to work with in that first half.
Without someone to tidy up and secure the loose ball when they went into the collisions, that aspect of the game was a nightmare when the South Africans were unable to protect their possession, which was most of the first 50 minutes.
The lineouts were problematic too, and the inability of the Boks to dominate that phase was one of the reasons their performance in this game was markedly inferior to a week earlier.
The Scots were feisty from the early minutes, throwing themselves at the Boks like men possessed, and some strong runs were made up the middle.
Visiting flyhalf Greig Laidlaw kicked the first points of the match with a penalty, but Morne Steyn equalized and then took the lead for the Boks with penalties of his own.
The first try of the match was created for the Scots by a great chip and gather out on the right by left wing Sean Lamont, with the Boks always looking short of defenders once the ball was spun to the left and inside centre Matt Scott went over easy as you like.
Laidlaw’s conversion was the last score of the half with 20 minutes of it left, although the Boks did turn down two kickable penalties only to see first-phase possession in the strike zone wasted by poor lineout work.
Outside centre Alex Dunbar went over in the left corner to complete the second try after a sustained build-up, but that was it for the Scots, who weren’t helped by having their lock Jim Hamilton yellow carded for slapping Eben Etzebeth a few minutes later.
A penalty try was awarded to the Boks as the pack rumbled up to the line, and then Engelbrecht did his bit by helping put in JJ Engelbrecht for the try that put the Boks into a lead in the 55th minute that they were never to relinquish.
South Africa – Tries: Penalty try, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2), Pat Lambie. Penalties: Steyn (2), Lambie.
Scotland – Tries: Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar. Conversions: Greig Laidlaw (2). Penalty: Laidlaw.