The South Africans' technical indiscipline, an old bête noire, robbed them of the biggest rugby upset of 2004 at Jade Stadium on Saturday.
A combination of New Zealand's improved tactical display in the second half and the Springboks' own fatigue near the end was just sufficient to rescue Graham Henry's side with the last move of the match. It was close, but given that the All Blacks enjoyed 73 per cent of possession and 68 per cent of the territory it was a surprise that South Africa held the lead until the last minute.
What turned out to be an intriguing Test match, if one that was full of mistakes, was not seen by a capacity crowd. There were empty seats in most of the stands, a disturbing fact in a stadium with only a capacity of only 36,000. If New Zealanders are no longer bothered about turning out for a Test with the Springboks, they are either sated with rugby or bored by the Tri-Nations concept. Or both.
From South Africa's viewpoint, events confirmed Jake White's arrival as an international coach of immense tactical cunning and nous. White pinpointed the All Black fly-half Carlos Spencer as the focus of his side's intensive, rapidly deployed defensive line. Spencer was often caught in possession and crabbed sideways on other occasions, ruining the All Blacks' chances of fluidity outside the scrum.
South Africa were frequently offside, as the Australian referee Andrew Cole constantly confirmed with his penalties. But Cole lacked the appetite to really sort it out with a yellow card, as White probably suspected he would, and the Springboks got away with stifling the All Blacks' game plan. Not until Henry got his men into the dressing room at half-time and, very volubly, told them to start showing passion and to drive the ball through the forwards around the fringes, did the pattern change. The Springboks were thrust onto the back foot for most of the second half.
Their own tactical inadequacies compounded their difficulties. Opportunities to clear downfield when the siege was at its height were scorned. Instead, Jaco van der Westhuyzen and De Wet Barry kept trying to run when territorial gain was essential. When the mistakes inevitably came, the Springboks were still pinned deep within their own half.
With the magnificent Schalk Burger giving another supreme back-row performance, closely followed by his fellow flanker AJ Venter, South Africa almost held on. But their scrum was less than impressive and one atrocious long line-out throw proved critical. New Zealand won a scrum from the ensuing knock-on and, more than a dozen phases later, they finally freed the winger Doug Howlett to score in the corner.
Springbok fans will say their team's courageous defensive performance and the three opportunist tries they scored in the first half were sufficient to merit victory. For sure, the tries by the winger Jean de Villiers (in the first minute), the No 8, Jacques Cronje, and the scrum-half, Fourie du Preez, were superbly taken. But they were isolated commando raids.
White bemoaned the near miss. "We were 10 seconds away from winning and it is always worse like that," he said. His captain, John Smit, was more revealing. "We're very disappointed with the way we played," he said. "We wanted to play more in their half but that didn't happen. We also got pinged [penalised] too many times. That was unfortunate."
Henry was relieved, praising the courage and character of his men. But the All Blacks' management cast dark glances at Cole for his laxity on the offside law. It so nearly cost the home side the Test match.
New Zealand: Try Howlett; Penalties Carter 5, Spencer. South Africa: Tries De Villiers, Cronje, Du Preez; Conversions Montgomery 3.
NEW ZEALAND: M Muliaina; D Howlett, T Umaga (capt), D Carter, J Rokocoko; C Spencer, J Marshall; K Meeuws, K Mealamu, G Somerville, C Jack, S Maling, J Collins, X Rush, M Holah. Replacements: A Williams for Maling 54, S Tuitupou for Carter 67, B Kelleher for Marshall 67.
SOUTH AFRICA: P Montgomery; B Paulse, M Joubert, D Barry, J de Villiers; J van der Westhuyzen, F du Preez; O du Randt, J Smit (capt), E Andrews, B Botha, A van den Berg, S Burger, J Cronje, AJ Venter. Replacements: F Rautenbach for Andrews 61, J van Niekerk for Venter 68, Q Davids for Botha 72, B Russell for Joubert 74.
Referee: A Cole (Australia).