The Springboks had enough chances to win half a dozen Test matches in Bloemfontein last night. Somehow, they scrambled home to a Tri-Nations victory which was only settled conclusively with three minutes left.
New Zealand were so error-ridden, their game so strewn with mistakes from first to last that they should have been put away by half-time. The fact the victory was not assured until Morne Steyn put over his third penalty goal, in the 78th minute, was a shocking indictment of the Springboks' lack of a killer instinct.
Coach Peter de Villiers made another blunder by choosing Ruan Pienaar to start in the No 10 jersey. After Pienaar had landed just one kick out of six and taken a knock to his ankle, he was replaced by Morne Steyn whose superior goal-kicking won the game. Pienaar, however, did hit each upright with successive penalty attempts in the first half.
Yet it was absurd the result was still in doubt virtually until the end. South Africa were overwhelmingly superior against a desperately poor New Zealand side which made more mistakes than I have ever seen from an All Black team. Their rugby in the first 40 minutes, especially, was among the dumbest you could imagine.
Whatever the error, the All Blacks made it. Scrum-half Brendon Leonard was penalised for a crooked scrum feed and promptly repeated the stupidity at the next scrum. Prop Neemia Tialata, of all people, tried to take a quick 22 drop-out and mucked it up, players pulled down the maul and dived off their feet at the breakdown.
Given this comedy of errors, it was crazy that South Africa could manage only a 14-3 lead by half-time. Had Morne Steyn been on the field from the start, they would have been out of sight at something like 25-3.
Pienaar did score the only try of the first half, looping around behind Jean de Villiers to score out wide. But he missed three penalties, that conversion and a dropped goal, kicks that could have proved crucial.
In the end, the Boks had to see off an improved second-half display by New Zealand. Their forwards at last played with some purpose but the tendency to make mistakes never left them. Late on, with the game still in the balance at 20-16, Leonard's replacement Piri Weepu threw a shocking pass inside the South African 22, Pierre Spies was on to it and eventually Juan Smith put Jaque Fourie over in the right corner. Even then, Stephen Donald closed the gap to 25-19 with his fourth penalty before Morne Steyn's late goal made sure.
A win of something like 33-12 would have been a more accurate reflection of South Africa's superiority. New Zealand's discipline was appalling and their lack of precision must have concerned their coach Graham Henry.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said there were some obvious areas to work on: "I thought we defended pretty well but it was what we were doing post-tackle, going off our feet.
"The Springboks played particularly well and simple mistakes forced us to play at our own end of the field. Points came from there."
The All Blacks were always second best and only some solid defensive work and the Springboks' own failings, kept them in touch. The home side were also superior at the set-pieces, especially the line-outs. Victor Matfield was in peerless form. The South African throwing was also much better, and New Zealand continued to commit suicide as a result of their disturbing lack of composure.
Yet centre Conrad Smith scored a brilliant individual try early in the second half to get back them into the game. He weaved his way through some uncertain defence to score and when Donald landed a 51st-minute penalty, the All Blacks had closed the gap to 17-13.
South Africa are more than capable of landing this Tri-Nations title. They have the power, poise, composure and desire. But they have to start taking their chances, and not allowing sides to stay in games they have no right to contest.
South Africa: F Steyn; JP Pietersen, J Fourie, J de Villiers (W Olivier, 68), B Habana; R Pienaar (M Steyn, 40), F du Preez; T Mtawarira, B Du Plessis, J Smit (capt) (J Du Plessis, 65-71), B Botha (D Rossouw, 68), V Matfield, H Brussow, J Smith, P Spies.
New Zealand: M Muliaina; J Rokocoko, C Smith, M Nonu, S Sivivatu; S Donald, B Leonard (P Weepu, 48); A Woodcock, A Hore (K Mealamu, 53), N Tialata (O Franks, 40), B Thorn, I Ross (J Eaton, 64), J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), R So'oialo (K Read, 53).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
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