Morne Steyn kicked a pressure penalty four minutes from time to secure a nailbiting 33-31 win for the Springboks over the Argentina Pumas in their Castle Lager Rugby Championship match in Salta on Saturday night.
Coach Heyneke Meyer likes character tests and his team most certainly passed this one as for the second time in four matches they came from more than a double figure score behind to win at the death.
However, Meyer will have added to the grey hairs on his head for it was a desperately tense affair and there were enough weak points in the Bok game to keep him awake at night mulling over his options ahead of the next match against Australia in Perth.
Once again the Bok scrum got pummeled, this time by a more marked degree than in Pretoria last week, with no less than three scrums going against the feed in the first half and penalties being awarded against them.
The Pumas are a renowned scrumming unit, but the Boks also struggled in that phase against Wales, so there are issues that need to be addressed there with some urgency, particularly before the All Blacks come into view.
The problems started at the scrums for the Boks, but they definitely didn’t end there, with the defence out wide looking all over the place as the Pumas surprised the visitors with their quick tempo game, their skill levels in moving the ball through the hands and retaining possession, as well as their willingness to play a wide game.
The Pumas missed some try-scoring opportunities along the way and were unlucky to be down 16-13 at halftime after dominating the opening 40 minutes, but they looked like they were still going to score their first ever win over South Africa when they put in a powerful third-quarter performance that propelled them into a 28-16 lead.
With the noisy Salta crowd getting in behind their team, the Boks were in a deep hole at that stage, and another try to Argentina, which would have been their fourth, would surely have killed off the Bok challenge.
However it was then that the Boks found some of the composure they had lacked before, with Marcell Coetzee in particular making a massive difference to the Boks as he came on from the bench.
Coetzee cut an industrious presence and perhaps it was that presence that injected more purpose into a Bok challenge that hadn’t amounted to much for the first 60 minutes.
Juan Smith, the man that Coetzee replaced, had a quite anonymous comeback to international rugby after an absence of four years.
Not that it would be fair to single out individual Bok culprits up front, for it was the pack as a whole that struggled and was just unable to get any momentum.
Scrumming is an important part of the South African rugby psyche, and when the scrumming unit gets mauled like the Boks were in this match, it has to have a negative impact on the confidence levels.
South African scrums have struggled periodically down the years, but it is hard to remember when they came second best in quite the humiliating fashion that they did in Salta, and full marks to the Boks for somehow finding a way to get out of the deep hole they found themselves in.
BOK KICKERS ON TARGET
The fightback started just before the hour mark, with Willie le Roux being presented with space to work with down the left as the Boks ran from near their own line.
Ruan Pienaar carried the move on and when the ball was moved to the right there was just enough space for right wing Cornal Hendricks to wriggle through a couple of defenders and reach out for the score.
It required the TMO to okay the try, and it was a close call, but when replacement flyhalf Steyn nailed a good conversion the Boks were suddenly back in the game at 28-23.
It appeared to have an impact on the Pumas, who had played with great self-belief up to that point but seemed to lose it after that, with Nicholas Sanchez restarting by kicking the ball too long.
Bok captain Jean de Villiers was criticised last week for opting to kick for the corner rather than for posts at Loftus, but he deserves credit for his bravery in opting to do the same when he was presented with a kickable penalty with 12 minutes to play. There was enough time for the Boks to narrow the gap to two points and still come back to win.
The decision turned out to be the right one though, with a strong forward drive culminating with Coetzee swiveling over off the side to score the try that reclaimed the lead for the Boks through Steyn’s conversion.
Marcelo Bosch then kicked a penalty from halfway with seven minutes left to reclaim the lead for Argentina. Territory then became an imperative for the Boks, and sure enough the Pumas were pinged for an infringement on the ground and up stepped Steyn to kick it.
Both Bok kickers, Steyn and the starting flyhalf Handre Pollard, were on target with all their kicks, and it was a good thing they were. The Pumas missed a few kicks at posts that ultimately cost them the game.
The Pumas set the tone for the match from the outset, with the Boks struggling to get their hands on the ball in the early stages.
The Pumas forced a penalty at the first scrum when they already enjoyed a 3-0 lead after a fourth minute penalty, and it quickly became evident there were holes in the Bok defensive system, with just some desperate scrambling keeping the Pumas out.
Their first try, which came in the 25th minute, was hardly a surprise, with good mauling down the right setting up an opportunity that was completed through good running and passing across the Bok defenders to the left as wing Manuel Montero dotted down in the corner.
The Boks' first-half try was fortuitous, with a Puma attack breaking down in the Bok 22, Pienaar kicking it through and then following up to kick through again and Bryan Habana chasing down the rolling ball.
After halftime the Pumas scored two good tries through scrumhalf Martin Landajo and fullback Joaquin Tuculet, with the latter being a constant thorn to the Boks.
In the end it was a case of the Boks showing composure when they had to and the Pumas losing their confidence when the world No 2 ranked team started their fightback.
The All Blacks or Wallabies won’t let the Boks off so easily and there are many issues to mull over as the team prepares for Australasia.
Argentina - Tries: Manuel Montero, Tomas Cubelli, Joaquin Tuculet. Conversions: Nicolas Sanchez (2). Penalties: Sanchez (2), Marcelo Bosch. Drop goal: Juan Martin Hernandez.
South Africa - Tries: Bryan Habana, Cornal Hendricks, Marcell Coetzee. Conversions: Handre Pollard, Morne Steyn (2). Penalties: Pollard (3).