The Boks just managed to scramble home in Pretoria, chiefly because Percy Montgomery's nerve held. But South African nerves were stretched as taut as piano wire by the end as the Boks fought desperately to hang on to their slender lead.
This was a very different Test match, and much of what happened at Loftus Versfeld yesterday will have concerned the Springbok coach, Jake White. So unconvincing a display must have been far off his radar at the start of this Tri-Nations contest.
The dangers of tinkering with a winning team had been brought home to White in a first half that was very different to the opening 40 minutes last week. The absence of the livewire scrum-half Ricky Januarie and flanker Solly Tyibilika hurt the Boks.
Throughout the game, the Wallabies were able to clean out fast second-phase ball much more efficiently and rapidly, with George Smith and Phil Waugh in harness. South Africa, without Tyibilika, were clearly inferior in this aspect of play whenever the Australians had quality ball going forward.
Januarie was the player who had tormented George Gregan in Johannesburg. Gregan found life altogether more comfortable in the more benign company of Fourie du Preez.
Few Australian sports teams do not react to a thrashing, and the Wallabies were no exceptions to the rule. They had a greater structure, purpose, hunger and cohesion to their game, but they should have capitalised by winning.
It was a close first half, level at 6-6 until right on half-time when the Wallaby flanker Smith scored from close range. The conversion made it 13-6 at the break. Matt Giteau had landed two penalties for the Wallabies, Montgomery one and a drop goal.
South Africa found themselves forced to tackle, cover at full stretch and play far too much of the game going backwards. Twice they were indebted to the wing Breyton Paulse, who saved two Australian tries by covering back.
With half an hour remaining and the Wallabies threatening to increase their lead, White had to do something to try and break the pattern. It was some measure of the Loftus crowd's concerns that they cheered the arrival of Schalk Burger even though the local favourite Jacques Cronje had to make way.
The change worked immediate wonders. The Boks attacked hard down the right and good work by Jaque Fourie and Montgomery put Paulse over for the try. Montgomery's conversion levelled the scores and raised South African voices immeasurably.
Montgomery and Giteau then exchanged further penalties to tie it up at 16-16 before Montgomery got a third goal seven minutes from time, to edge his team in front at 19-16. Finally, Andre Pretorius dropped a goal with the last kick of the match.
South Africa: P Montgomery; B Paulse, J Fourie, J de Villiers, B Habana; A Pretorius, F du Preez (R Januarie, 69); G Steenkamp, J Smit (capt), CJ van der Linde (G Botha, 68), B Botha (A van den Berg, 62), V Matfield, J van Niekerk, J Smith, J Cronje (S Burger, 50).
Australia: C Latham; W Sailor (D Mitchell, 72), M Turinui (S Mortlock, 55), M Giteau, L Tuqiri; S Larkham, G Gregan (capt); B Young, J Paul, M Dunning (A Baxter, 44), D Vickerman (M Chisholm, 71), N Sharpe, G Smith, P Waugh, J Roe (R Elsom, 75).
Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).