Quintin van Jaarsveld reflects on the Springboks’ season and ranks their performance in each Test from worst to best.
The world champions faced unprecedented challenges in 2021. With fields of ground to cover and precious little preparation time, the undercooked Springboks showed immense character to clinch the British & Irish Lions series 2-1 after losing the opening Test.
Retaining the Rugby Championship trophy was a bridge too far, however, a thrilling win over the All Blacks to finish the tournament was a return to form. A last-gasp loss to England, a third of its cruel kind this year, denied the men in green and gold a first unbeaten end-of-year tour since 2013 and saw them finish the season with eight wins from 13 matches, in which they scored 334 points and conceded 224.
Following the Twickenham heartbreaker, coach Jacques Nienaber said, “I told the team in the change room afterward that they’re better than our winning percentage this season (62%),” and that’s a fair call considering they finished the year where they started, as the No.1-ranked team in the world.
Retracing the steps of a challenging season, here’s our rundown of the Springboks’ performances, from the lowest low to the highest high:
13: 30-17 Loss to Australia on the Gold Coast, 18 September
The only blowout of the season, the Springboks were woeful on a day in which their greatest strength turned into a weakness. The stonewall that was the impregnable defence on which their World Cup triumph was built eroded into a picket fence-esque structure that was easily breached and leaked four tries in the 13-point defeat. Nienaber branded it the worst performance since the 32-19 loss to Argentina in Mendoza in 2018.
12: 29-10 Win Over Argentina in Gqeberha,21 August
Having found out how listless Argentina was the previous week, South Africa lacked the killer instinct. The victory was straightforward enough yet underwhelming as they missed out on a bonus point after scoring just two tries through Makazole Mapimpi and Malcolm Marx. Lood de Jager served up the only real highlight as he celebrated his Test half-century with a Man of the Match performance.
11: 40-9 Win Over Georgia in Pretoria, 2 July
Nineteen months after their World Cup triumph in Japan, the Springboks finally returned from Covid-enforced limbo against Georgia. As expected, they were rusty for most of the first half but found their rhythm in the second to secure a comfortable win over the passionate but outclassed Lelos. Pieter-Steph du Toit was back with a vengeance, while debutant Aphelele Fassi scored a top try with his first touch of the ball.
10: 32-12 Win Over Argentina In Gqeberha, 14 August
Solid rather than spectacular, a second-string Springbok outfit made light work of the Pumas to start the defence of their Rugby Championship title with a 20-point triumph. Leaving nothing to chance, the hosts were overly conservative in hindsight, although the three tries they did score, including one by debutant Jayden Hendrikse, were memorable.
9: 27-26 Loss to England in London, 20 November
In an epic season-ender, the Springboks showed their resilience to claw their way back after trailing 17-6 early on. In the tense final quarter, Mapimpi scored to become the fastest Springbok to reach the 20-try mark in what was his 25th Test and Frans Steyn edged the visitors in front off the tee. They lacked accuracy all afternoon, though, squandering several try-scoring opportunities and missing three kicks at goal, with a yellow card to captain Siya Kolisi in the dying stages leading to Marcus Smith snatching victory with a last-minute penalty goal.
8: 28-26 Loss to Australia on the Gold Coast,12 September
A match the Springboks should’ve won, having outscored the hosts three tries to one. Bongi Mbonambi and Marx were mauled over the whitewash, the latter crashing over twice. In the end, though, goal-kicking was the difference as a returning Quade Cooper slotted eight from eight, while Handre Pollard missed two penalty goals and conversion and Damian Willemse missed a conversion. Cooper’s decisive penalty goal after the hooter had lingering effects as it sparked a curse of last-kick defeats.
7: 30-15 Win Over Scotland in Edinburgh, 13 November
Leading 10-8 at half-time, Scotland was eyeing a second major scalp in as many weeks following a win over the Wallabies. Unbeknownst to them, they’d already been administered slow poison, which kicked in after the interval and led to a dominant win for the Springboks in the end. Eben Etzebeth was the destroyer-in-chief while Mapimpi crossed twice to continue his streak of scoring against every country he’s played against.
6: 22-17 Loss to British & Irish Lions in Cape Town- First Test, 24 July
A seismic showdown spawned Rassiegate. The Springboks started strong in a physically intense match of two halves, leading 12-3 at the break before the tourists turned the tables in the second stanza. Maro Itoje was magnificent, with Courtney Lawes and Ali Price also coming to the fore. The Lions enjoyed the rub of the green, with South Africa having two tries disallowed. Faf de Klerk scored the only five-pointer for the hosts with Pollard adding a dozen points, but it wasn’t enough as Warren Gatland’s men drew first blood.
5: 19-17 Loss to New Zealand in Townsville, 25 September
Following the back-to-back losses to the Wallabies, some feared the 100th Test between rugby’s greatest rivals would be a one-sided affair. Instead, a passionate Springbok side came to the party and ensured it was a historic humdinger. Sbu Nkosi’s opportunistic try and Pollard’s boot put South Africa within touching distance of a famous triumph only for Jordie Barrett to land a long-range match-winner at the death to clinch the Rugby Championship crown with a round to spare. There was a victory in defeat for the distraught Springboks, though, having regained their fire and reminded of their class.
4: 23-18 Win Over Wales in Cardiff, 6 November
The world champions hung tough against the spirited Six Nations winners in torrential rain, ultimately taking the lead for the first time in the 73rd minute thanks to a Marx try, with Steven Kitshoff winning a textbook breakdown penalty to seal the deal. However, the day belonged to Frans Steyn, who turned back the clock after replacing an injured Willemse early on. The two-time World Cup winner produced a commanding performance complete with a vintage 54-meter penalty goal to help break the Springboks’ eight-year drought at the Principality Stadium.
3: 31-29 Win Over New Zealand on the Gold Coast, 2 October
On a three-match losing skid, the Springboks ended the Rugby Championship on a high as they handed the All Blacks their first defeat of the year in an instant classic. Lukhanyo Am lit the fuse with a piece of individual brilliance that sparked a try for center partner Damian de Allende and it was pure fireworks from thereon out. Elton Jantjies played a key role off the bench, putting Mapimpi in for a try and slotting a drop-goal as the lead continued to change hands. Just as it looked as if Barrett had done them in with another late three-pointer, the never-say-die Springboks won a penalty in injury time and Jantjies popped it over for the win.
2: 27-9 Win Over British & Irish Lions in Cape Town- Second Test, 31 July
Facing a do-or-die situation, the added drama of Rassiegate put the Springboks under unprecedented pressure and they rose to the occasion in style. Spearheaded by Kolisi, whose talismanic performance included a crucial try-saving intervention just before half-time, the men in green and gold delivered a dominant second-hand performance highlighted by terrific tries by Mapimpi and Am to secure a series-leveling 27-9 win.
1: 19-16 Win Over British & Irish Lions in Cape Town- Third Test, 7 August
Cometh the hour, cometh the Springboks. South Africa showed their championship mettle in the blockbuster series decider, staying composed and trusting their structures as they trailed 10-6 at half-time. Man of the Match Cheslin Kolbe was the game-changer when he scored a carbon copy of his try against England in the World Cup final to put the hosts in the lead in the 56th minute. Finn Russell and Morne Steyn traded a pair of penalty goals to leave the series hanging in the balance at 16-all before Steyn delivered the ultimate dose of déjà vu by slotting the winning penalty goal in the 78th minute, 12 years after having landed the decisive blow in the 2009 series.