The Springboks did not win the match but they won back hearts and minds with a colossal performance that took the All Blacks to the brink at Newlands on Saturday in one of the best Tests yet between the sides.
New Zealand’s 25-24 win was testament to their ruthless ability to make the most of their chances after individual Bok errors. In a game of minuscule margins, the All Blacks were that little bit more clinical.
Over 90 minutes (the first half ran to 50 minutes) the Boks were the better team. But New Zealand were good enough to hang in when they had to and pounce when the right moment arose as they beat the Boks for a 57th time in their 95th meeting.
It also gave the All Blacks a 100% winning record in the tournament for a second successive year and took their tally to 30 wins in 33 Rugby Championship matches with only two losses and a draw.
The pack was brilliant with hooker Malcolm Marx giving one of the finest individual performances by a Bok player yet
Despite the result, SA’s sixth consecutive loss against New Zealand, the word "rivalry" has been restored to the lexicon of contests between the two nations after the Boks lost 57-0 in Albany three weeks earlier.
The performance also gave a kernel of hope that perhaps something special is brewing in this Springbok squad.
The next challenge is finding consistency and matching this type of ferociously focused performance every time they take the field — a la the All Blacks. SA need to prove that this was not a one-off accomplishment, but rather the start of a trend.
The pack was brilliant with hooker Malcolm Marx giving one of the finest individual performances by a Bok player yet. Loosehead Steven Kitshoff and captain Eben Etzebeth were not far behind while flank Pieter-Steph du Toit, playing out of position, justified his selection.
The Lions hooker made four turnovers and 11 tackles as well as 14 ball carries. At times it felt as if there were three Marxes out there.
"They were quite brutal at that breakdown. I think Malcolm Marx made about 10 turnovers," All Black hooker Dane Coles said with understandable hyperbole. "He played bloody well tonight. His lineout was good and he got some good carries and a lot of turnovers. He’s got a big future in the game."
Kitshoff, who had a huge game himself in his first start after 18 appearances as a substitute, could not praise Marx enough. "Malcolm is my boytjie," Kitshoff said. "He’s one of my good friends in the team and I’m really proud of him.
"He’s been playing 80 minutes for a couple of games in a row now and he’s absolutely a beast when it comes to the breakdown, carrying and defensive work. He’s going to have a long Springbok career."
This performance was so many notches up on the Boks’ last outing against the All Blacks, it is hard to believe it was the same team.
"The difference was that they got go-forward over the gainline, and put us under pressure with big bodies coming at us," All Black skipper Kieran Read said.
"They really kept coming, they’re a quality side when they get momentum and it’s hard to stem the tide when they get on a roll. We lacked a bit of intensity, while the Boks showed a lot, and that was probably the difference," Read said.
Bok coach Allister Coetzee reiterated after the game that the 57-0 loss in Albany did not define his team. But by the same measure the huge Newlands performance should also be seen as an outlier on the opposite end of the Bok spectrum.
Just as one abject performance does not define his team, neither should one excellent outing. The true measure of the Boks lies somewhere in between the two performances against the All Blacks this season. While this match is a superb example of what Coetzee’s team are capable of doing, they still lost a home match.
The All Blacks won after a punishing travel schedule while playing without key players such as lock Brodie Retallick, fullback Ben Smith, wing Israel Dagg and props Joe Moody and Owen Franks.
They also lost influential flyhalf Beauden Barrett and wing Nehe Milner-Skudder to injury in the first half.