We will refrain from describing it as a classic, which it certainly was not. However, given the ludicrous level of hyperbole in the build-up to this first Test, I found the initial meeting of the reigning world champions and the best of the Home Nations gripping.
If you like your sport 100 per cent honest and without frills, then doff your cap to every single player who contributed to this absorbing affair. That goes for both teams.
At a time of unprecedented highs in global temperature, one can only speculate about the heights the atmosphere would have ascended to had the circumstances been different. If there was any kind of in-stadium crowd in Cape Town, the buzz generated by spectators would have been quite something. By extension, that would have also had an impact on the players.
When the Springboks play, you know what to expect. Seldom, if ever, do they fail to deliver.
It is no-holds-barred physicality, as exemplified by Lukhanyo Am’s near-demolition early hit on Elliot Daly. Little wonder the gifted Saracen was rattled thereafter. Seamus Dennison on Stu Wilson back in 1978 comes to mind, but we’ll not go there. This was a different level in a different era.
Playing the Rainbow nation, you know what’s coming but can you handle it? I was on board in the comparable game in the same city in 1980. It was no different back then, in terms of preparaption, both mental and physical.
Unless armed with the same level of intensity, there is only going to be one winner.
For the best part of 40 minutes on Saturday, that looked as though it was going to be the case, as the interval scoreline in favour of the Springboks adequately reflected.
In truth, given the strange circumstances, this was always going to be a somewhat unpredictable encounter, with speculation rife and nobody knowing anything for sure ahead of kick-off.
South Africa hit the ground running. They totally dominated the opening quarter, playing the type of grinding, front-foot rugby for which they are renowned.
That is no criticism, merely a statement of fact. Of course, a penalty count of two-to-one in favour of the Boks can be attributed to a lack of discipline in that opening half.
However, losing discipline comes from pressure and no nation – not even New Zealand – applies pressure more brutally or more effectively. Give me the All Black way most every day, but that’s another discussion for another time.
In the opening half, what we witnessed was suffocation, control and composure. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, given the Covid factor, we witnessed an amazing level of confidence.
Bear in mind, this was effectively South Africa’s first genuinely competitive game since the World Cup final in 2019.
Tadhg Furlong was widely quoted in the build-up when referring to the challenge ahead as “big-boy rugby”. Few, if any, could argue with that assessment.
Furlong, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje were the three at the heart of the extraordinary turnaround. Lawes was outstanding at six but Itoje was something else and deservedly picked up the official man of the match award. He was the catalyst.
A case could be made for Robbie Henshaw, too, given he provided the one incision of the first half close to the break. That, in effect, provided the spark which clearly lit the fuse at the half-time gathering.
Indeed, from an Irish perspective – and allowing for the fact that Tadhg Beirne only arrived in the dying minutes – the four of Furlong, Jack Conan, Henshaw and Conor Murray all delivered.
Conan, in particular, was outstanding. As Warren Gatland so rightly stated in the immediate aftermath, “Jack seldom makes a mistake”.
That has always been his hallmark. Other eights are more robust or dynamic, but when it comes to the complete package, in terms of mind and body working in tandem, the current Lions No 8 is the real deal.
His work ethic, specifically in terms of getting down and dirty, is the least recognised in his array of skills. With respect to Sam Warburton, who thinks otherwise, it would be a travesty were Taulupe Faletau (a great No 8 in his own right) to replace Conan for Test number two.
Gatland wouldn’t be true to form if he didn’t shuffle the troops ever so slightly. Obviously, injuries depending, he may look at loosehead, possibly openside flanker, where Hamish Watson continues to deliver to order. Beyond that, Daly could be under pressure from Owen Farrell, or perhaps even more so Bundee Aki, for a precious place alongside Henshaw in midfield.
In a three-match Test series over 15 days, the mantra of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is difficult to apply. Gatland knows that well and he has the courage of his convictions to go with his gut.
Credit where credit is due. To dig this one out and turn a significant deficit into a 22-17 success took bottle from the players and management.