When it came to the crunch, South Africa produced their most inept display since their enlightened coach, Nick Mallett, was appointed last year. On Saturday, when they ran into a combine harvester called the English pack, they ran out of ideas, ran out of luck.
They probably made more mistakes than in the other 17 victorious Tests put together. At times they looked the more sophisticated side but ultimately they froze. They couldn't handle it, literally.
The lack of continuity was down to the fact that the Springboks repeatedly fumbled possession. It was impossible to keep count of the number of times they knocked the ball on. Was this in any way down to the ferocity of the English tackling? Mallett was asked. He simply laughed.
In the post mortem, Gary Teichmann, the Springbok captain, was searching for clues. "There were so many errors," he said. "Perhaps we were trying to off-load the ball too often in the tackle, making one or two passes too many. On this occasion it didn't work for us. On another day it might have."
It looked so promising for the Rainbow Warriors when Bobby Skinstad, with a sublime pass, released Pieter Rossouw in the seventh minute and the left wing feigned to go inside before taking Nick Beal on the outside.
"The tries stemmed from a long pass but the key was that we had second or third phase possession," Teichmann said. "For the rest of the game our attacks ended at the first tackle.
"We failed to take an opportunity of a lifetime but I believe we've achieved something really special over the last 15 months."
Nobody would argue with that. It took the All Blacks of Brian Lochore, another outstanding back-row forward, four years from the mid-Sixties to compile their record of 17 international victories.
With the competition becoming more intense rather than less - Clive Woodward, the England coach, believes at least six countries have a realistic chance of lifting the World Cup next year - it is difficult to imagine any team threatening to mount such a sequence in the future.
Fate decreed that South Africa, who had beaten England at Twickenham last year and again at Cape Town this summer, would put their record on the line in one of the ultimate tests of fortitude.
"We knew that England was the best of the four home nations," Mallett said. "When we looked at the schedule we knew that if we came to the last game unbeaten it would be a tough call. England are extremely well organised in defence and it was always going to be desperately close. Facing England at Twickenham is one of the hardest fixtures left in international rugby."
Despite the crushing disappointment, the Springboks were magnanimous in defeat. In mitigation they might have cited exhaustion as a factor; they have had almost 11 months of continuous top-grade rugby. "Fatigue was not an issue," Mallett said. "I don't agree with the supposition that we ran out of gas. We have no excuses. The better team won."
They were not even tempted to point out that the referee, Paddy O'Brien, was a New Zealander and thus, in the context of the record, not exactly a neutral observer.
Perhaps the most surprising thing, apart from their atrocious handling, about South Africa's performance was their tactical naivete. To go through a match of such magnitude without kicking a penalty defies belief.
Percy Montgomery - what, by the way, has happened to the world's most dangerous full-back? - missed a kick that, in golfing terms, would have been no more than an 18-inch putt. Matt Dawson also missed a sitter, but crucially landed two second-half penalties that broke the stalemate.
Whenever South Africa were awarded a penalty within kicking range they seemed unsure whether to go for the points. Considering they knew this was going to be a close encounter, any chance to put some points on the board should have been taken. Near the end of the first half, when they won a penalty close to the England posts, Henry Honiball kicked for an attacking position to the left-hand corner but only succeeded in putting the ball dead. Yet a couple of minutes later, from a far more difficult position, Teichmann asked Montgomery to kick for goal and he missed. South Africa had lost the plot.
"You realise," a South African reporter told Mallett, "That when you get home you're going to get mauled by the press."
"I'm looking forward," the 42-year-old former No 8 replied, "to meeting the guy who is going to try to maul me."
All good things must come to an end and with the pressure of the record removed, Mallett and the Springboks can start the new year afresh.Reuse content