Samoans scare Springboks but bow out

South Africa 13 Samoa 5

The captain fumbles the ball with the line at his mercy; the goalkicker misses a conversion that might have kept his team in the tournament; the full-back is sent off because an opposing flanker makes a five-course meal of a shove in the face and throws himself on to the floor like a crooked boxer ... all in all, another workaday tale of South Seas misfortune at the World Cup.

Except there was nothing workaday about this surging, churning, gut-wrenching contest before a record crowd on Auckland's North Shore.

Samoa have given the Springboks a hurry-up before, but never for the full duration. Certainly, they have never previously finished within eight points of them. Or 10 points. Or even 20. This was a real game – one of the very best in recent World Cup memory, and for the entirety of a 50-odd minute second half the reigning champions were in serious danger of defeat. South Africa may ultimately look back on this alarming experience as a transformative moment, but for now their overriding emotion will be one of purest relief.

Somewhere in the Samoan rugby psyche there is a power switch. Opponents do not have the faintest clue what it takes to flick it: maybe the islanders themselves have no idea. But when the lights come on, they are one hell of a side. Taiasina Tuifua, Maurie Fa'asavalu and George Stowers, the back-rowers; Tusi Pisi and the brilliant Kahn Fotuali'i at half-back; Alesana Tuilagi and David Lemi on the wings – every last one of them brought the whole of himself to this game. As for Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, the Gloucester centre – if there has been a better midfield performance at this tournament, it happened with the floodlights off.

Had Samoa picked Fuimaono-Sapolu, so creative in the No 12 channel, and Lemi, so quick-footed and elusive, against Wales in their second pool game, and if both had played like this, the quarter-final draw would look very different. As it is, they are all but out of the competition. More's the pity.

Behind early to Bryan Habana's high-class finish and a monstrous 60-metre penalty from Frans Steyn, the Samoans seemed vulnerable. Their line-out was unproductive, their scrum a mess. Only the loose forwards, aided and abetted by the resourceful Fotuali'i, kept them at the races, and even when those players established a good position in the Boks' 22 at the back end of the half, things went against them. The referee Nigel Owens, who had a very dodgy night, snuffed out a dangerous Samoan attack himself by getting in the way. A sympathetic official would have granted the aggrieved a set-piece feed. Owens blew for the interval instead.

Perhaps that was what flicked the switch. From the restart, the Samoans were venomous: only Schalk Burger, the celebrated Springbok flanker, seemed entirely comfortable with the leap in intensity and tempo, although the excellent hooker Bismarck Du Plessis had his moments. Stowers cut the deficit by finishing off a fine attack orchestrated by Fotuali'i and Fuimaono-Sapolu, and the islanders would have been within a single score had Pisi not fluffed the simple conversion.

Mahonri Schwalger should have scored five minutes from the end of normal time, but dropped the ball in the act of touching down from the traditional front-rower's distance of three inches. Then, Paul Williams was dismissed on the say-so of the English flagman Stuart Terheege after a spat with Heinrich Brussow, whose "dying swan" response to an open-handed assault did little to enhance his image as an old-school Bokke hard nut.

Such is life, especially in Pacific Islands rugby. Unless Fiji do something extraordinary to Wales tomorrow – and they do not look equipped to do anything at all – the South Seas dimension will be missing from here on in.

South Africa: Try Habana. Conversion M Steyn. Penalties F Steyn, M Steyn. Samoa: Try Stowers.

South Africa: P Lambie; J P Pietersen, J Fourie, F Steyn, B Habana (F Hougaard, 46; J De Villiers, 53); M Steyn, F Du Preez; T Mtawarira (G Steenkamp, 69), B Du Plessis (J Smit, 78), J Du Plessis, D Rossouw (W Alberts, 50-58; B Du Plessis, 86), V Matfield (capt), H Brussow, S Burger, P Spies (Alberts, 69).

Samoa: P Williams; D Lemi, S Mapusua, E Fuimaono-Sapolu, A Tuilagi; T Pisi, K Fotuali'i; S Taulafo (L Mulipola, 91), M Schwalger (capt; O Avei, 91), C Johnston (A Perenise, 64), D Leo (J Tekori, 68), K Thompson, T Tuifua (O Trevinarus, 86), M Fa'asavalu, G Stowers.

Referee: N Owens (Wales).