The Springboks confounded their critics with a stunning second half performance to defeat Ireland 31-17 in a hard-fought Test encounter at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein on Saturday afternoon.
The teams were locked 11-11 at half-time, but - backed by fervent support from the home crowd - the South Africans stepped up a gear in the second stanza to win a match few people gave them a hope of winning.
The Boks outscored the Irish by four tries to one and showed glimpses of the form they will need if they hope to rise back to the top of the world rugby tree.One major problem that needs to be sorted out before the second Test in Cape Town next weekend is goal kicking.
Fullback Gaffie du Toit was entrusted with the responsibility on Saturday and failed miserably, slotting just four kicks from eight attempts.Star turns for the home side came from lock Bakkies Botha, who scored a brace of tries, and flank Schalk Burger - despite a yellow card - while the Irish were superbly led by gifted centre Brian O'Driscoll.
Both teams were guilty of making errors immediately from the kick-off, but it was the home team who settled their nerves first, with a third minute try from a bullocking run by Bulls lock Botha.The score was in fact courtesy of some sterling work by veteran prop Os Du Randt who emerged from a ruck with the ball after it seemed the Irish had turned it over. It was swiftly propelled down the line for Botha to finish strongly with several defenders in attendance.
Ireland's flyhalf Ronan O'Gara then reduced the deficit to two points six minutes later, after the Boks were penalised for hands in the ruck.Du Toit made amends for a poor conversion attempt of Botha's try to slot an easy penalty and stretch the lead again, but the Boks were looking susceptible in defence.
Some rash mistakes when in possession at a rolling maul led to a lineout for the visitors just inside the Boks' half.From the ensuing possession, captain O'Driscoll brilliantly went through a gap as the ball was spun down the line and he put away hulking Irish winger Shane Horgan to crash over in the corner for a simple five-pointer.
Despite a shameful display in the loose in the first half, the Boks were winning their fair share of lineout ball, with Botha and Burger getting through a mountain of work.However, they still kept getting themselves into bad positions on the field when in a position of power only moments before.
The Boks upped the ante in the next ten minutes but failed to convert that dominance into points and it was not long before the Triple Crown champions came storming back into Bok territory courtesy of their captain.
O'Driscoll was able to brush aside South African tackles as if he were swatting a fly, and his jinking run just after the half-hour mark almost saw Horgan in for his second try. Only desperate SA defence kept them at bay.Eventually a forgettable half of rugby was mercifully brought to an end after Du Toit missed a last minute penalty that saw the teams share the spoils at the break.
Things changed shortly after the restart though, when firstly centre Wayne Julies sliced through the Irish defence to score wide on the right after the Boks had finally put together several phases of play.Then a clever kick by wing Breyton Paulse caught the Irish back three napping and gave the visitors a harmless-looking lineout five metres from their line.But then hooker Shane Byrne inexplicably failed to find lock Malcolm O'Kelly and Botha was gifted his second try after 53 minutes of play.Du Toit missed his fourth kick of the afternoon, but South Africa were 21-14 ahead.Earlier O'Gara had slotted a drop-goal to hand Ireland the lead after 44 minutes.
The Ireland pivot then kept the Boks' victory champagne on ice with a monstrous penalty in the 63rd minute to close the gap to just four points.But it was just temporary as Pedrie Wannenburg scored from a shove by the pack and Du Toit even managed to slot the angled conversion to put his team 11 points clear.Du Toit found his range again with a huge penalty seven minutes from the final whistle to ultimately end any lingering Irish hopes.