Cape Town — In the end, Argentina spoiled the party for the Springboks and over 45 000 people crammed into Kings Park.
But if I must be brutally honest, the Boks were their own party poopers in Saturday night’s 38-21 victory.
The South Africans knew exactly what they needed to do to win the Rugby Championship title — score 39 points more than Los Pumas, and secure a try bonus point to edge out the All Blacks, who dispatched the Wallabies 40-14 in Auckland earlier on Saturday.
Yet it was the Argentinians who looked full of running and were more creative on attack than the home side.
Yes, the Boks weren’t helped by the overly officious Australian referee Damon Murphy, who disrupted the flow of the game with his incessant blasting of the whistle and long-winded explanations — and his yellow card against Eben Etzebeth in the second half was ridiculous.
But Siya Kolisi and his team can’t blame the 37-year-old Murphy.
In fact, the Bok problems started even before kick-off, when coach Jacques Nienaber picked Frans Steyn at flyhalf after Damian Willemse was ruled out with concussion.
He argued that he had few realistic options available, with Elton Jantjies not considered following his off-field issues and Handre Pollard injured.
But it was Nienaber who refused to bring in uncapped specialist pivots such as URC title-winning Manie Libbok of the Stormers, URC finalist Chris Smith of the Bulls and promising youngster Jordan Hendrikse of the Lions.
And the Bok boss paid a heavy price for that decision at Kings Park.
Steyn was his usual self — trying things on his own, missing touch from penalties and generally not operating as a playmaker should. But I don’t blame him for that, as we all know what we’ll get from the 35-year-old veteran.
At least he kicked a 50m penalty — which was also an odd decision to kick for posts when they were chasing a bonus point.
Hopefully it is a lesson that will be heeded by Nienaber well before next year’s Rugby Cup.
The initial Bok game plan was the right one — soften up Argentina by bludgeoning through the middle with the forwards, sapping their energy and spirit, and gaining physical dominance in the scrums and driving mauls.
The South Africans achieved that, but then proceeded to waste several opportunities on attack through knock-ons, breakdown penalties and desperate defence from Los Pumas, which saw them score just 17 points in the first half.
There was front-foot ball aplenty, and more than enough chances for the likes of Makazole Mapimpi and Canan Moodie to be brought into the game. But the ball seldom went past Steyn and Damian de Allende as the world champions continued to bulldoze their way forward.
They needed a point of difference, and it wasn’t forthcoming from Steyn or the Bok coaches. In fact, Argentina played with greater ambition on attack, despite having nothing to play for essentially compared to their opponents.
Even when Kurt-Lee Arendse replaced Willie le Roux at fullback in the second half, South Africa kept things tight and hardly threw a punch in anger at the Argentina defence out wide.
Last week’s 36-20 victory in Buenos Aires was one of conviction, and the Boks deserved all the praise for their composure in the second half and the manner in which they tried to unlock the defence.
This time around, their strategy, execution and decision-making let them down, and they missed out on a great chance to win their first full Rugby Championship tournament since 2009.
The only real positive for Nienaber and his team was that they chalked up another victory at the end of a long campaign, and will now enjoy a bit of a break before the end-of-year tour to Europe.
But the gains made on attack over the last few months took a backward step in Durban, so the Bok brains-trust will have to ponder on a few solutions going forward…
Springboks 38 — Tries: Jasper Wiese, Siya Kolisi, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Penalty Tries (2). Conversions: Frans Steyn (3). Penalty: Steyn
Pumas 21 — Tries: Gonzalo Bertranou, Juan Martin Gonzalez, Matias Moroni. Conversions: Emiliano Boffelli.