So when it happened, it was the minor miracle of Loftus Versfeld. England, who could hardly beat anyone - in fact had beaten only the Second Division province, Western Transvaal, and that by a couple of points - suddenly found that they could beat the Springboks.
Amazing. Rob Andrew's kicking was good (and has subsequently become even better) and that helped. But the moment that encapsulated everything - not just England's superiority, but their right to be considered realistic World Cup contenders - came when they scored their glorious first try.
Remember that this was a side who had not scored any try for more than a year until the two that came against Wales in the final Five Nations fixture that immediately preceded the tour. And even the Welsh match, victorious though it was, could not have been described as a liberation.
Things had not improved once England encountered the alien conditions of South Africa. Whether it was the intense humidity of the coast at Durban or the thin air of the High Veldt in Johannesburg, it was equally bad. Defeats by Orange Free State, Natal, Transvaal and South Africa A came as a baleful pre-Test sequence.
All of which, when it came down to it at Loftus, was of no account and England laid on an exhibition fit for President Nelson Mandela himself. The profound emotion of the day, with Mandela present, did nothing for the Springboks' equanimity and the England forwards immediately ripped into them with a controlled ferocity that the cynics among us had thought they had lost for ever, or at any rate for the duration of the tour.
And the beautiful thing was that the pressure of this forward game was allied to back-line running that produced not only pressure but points. Galore. Eventually - after all of 11 minutes - England worked a lovely move, bringing Tony Underwood inside Andrew for that seminal first try.
They had tried, and rather abjectly failed, to get it right in training the previous day but this time it worked impeccably, with Ben Clarke hurtling up in support and then taking defenders with him over the last 10 unstoppable yards. Clarke, poor fellow, was playing at open-side flanker, where he hates it, and may in his bleaker musings wonder whether he did rather too well for his own good.
It was significant enough that a try, any try, had been scored but the special meaning of Clarke's was that it was the product of forwards and backs in perfect harmony, that it showed that England were capable of playing precisely the measured but mobile, fluid and fluent rugby that they had been going on about for years. At the same time, they proved something to themselves as well.
Clarke having set the tone, England went on to win the match by a smashing 32-15, Andrew's 27 points from a try (three minutes after Clarke's), conversion, five penalties and a drop goal breaking Jon Webb's England record. Had we not seen it with our owneyes, we would not have believed even the finest England team capable of beating the Springboks so handsomely in their own land.
As it turned out, it was too much to hope for a repeat a week later in Cape Town, where they lost 27-9. Typical: having been no-hopers in Pretoria, they could hardly lose at Newlands, so of course they did precisely that.Reuse content