JOHANNESBURG – Pieter-Steph du Toit cried like a kid at his first birthday. The Beast got down on a knee. Aphiwe Dyantyi did a Wakanda-roar, and in the beautiful madness of it all – in rugby’s equivalent of hell on earth – the Springboks defiantly put their flag back on the map of international reckoning. Sport is mad.
This week there were less rugby get-togethers organised. Grown men decided to hike up mountains, out of cell-phone range and well away from the anticipated groans at the TV from 9.35am yesterday morning. The obituaries were being penned all week as performances against Argentina and Australia had an entire rugby nation dreading the worst.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen quipped that the Boks were dangerous, a team on the up, and there were polite giggles from across the seas. Surely Hansen said as much with tongue in cheek. Did he watch the bumbling performance in Brisbane a week before?
It turns out, Hansen had watched, and his diagnosis was not far off the mark. Kiwi rugby doffed its collective cap at the foe that they have always maintained is their greatest ever, and the rest of the rugby world – South Africa included – collected their jaws from the basement.
The pride in defence alone was worth the admission ticket, worth the morning breakfast braais and pre-midday beverages to calm the nerves. It was worth the pain of Mendoza and Brisbane, too, and the cherry on top was a predatory instinct when ball was in hand. The All Blacks were given an overdose of their own medicine. Every mistake was punished, and in sevens, not mere threes.
To disbelief, South Africa led at the break, and led beyond that, too. Every South African at the Westpac Stadium was too nervous to get too excited, because the Kiwi sting in the tail is well known. Going against the sporting grain, they seem to get stronger the longer they are out there. The longer it lasted, the worse the agony for the spectator at home became.
That road, that one that winds its way to a dead end of near-wins and if-onlys, is too familiar in recent years. Not again, a nation begged. Not again, indeed, said Messrs Kolisi, Whiteley, Du Toit, Kolbe, Mtawarira, Marx, Pollard et al. And the tigerish Faf de Klerk, who was simply nuts on defence.
There were heroes all over the field for the Springboks. They stood up, defiantly. And, at the death there was a poignant reminder that South Africa – country and sporting teams – are infinitely better together than apart.
All winter, the debate has raged between Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies. Yesterday, they ended the game on the field, together. Side by side, and completely in sync. Both played key roles, with and without the ball. Both showed why they are precious pieces of the puzzle that the Springboks are trying to put together for late 2019. Who knew?
In the aftermath, Kolisi admitted that the words were not quite there yet. In the coaches’ box, Rassie Erasmus and his trusted few hugged and banged on tables in a manner not dissimilar to Peter de Villiers (remember him?) and his entourage back in 2009.
Yeah, it really had been that long since a Springbok performance in that part of the world demanded such a reaction. This week, after talking of possibly losing jobs and making yet more changes, the Boks and their coaching staff lived. They took their fans, fickle and fanatical, along for the ride, too.
The cynics will remind the merry that it is but one match. Even if it is but one match, one win and one step in the right direction, Saturday, September 15 was a giant leap for a team, a coach and a captain all in need of a boost of belief. That they did it in the backyard of the best team in world sport made it even more remarkable.
The stats and logic will tell you that Saturday was not supposed to happen. But sport sometimes cooks up these delicious upsets. And when it does, all a fan can do is sit back and soak it in, cursing the decision to watch a historic match in fearful isolation, rather than collective glee.
Sport is mad. And beautifully so.