On their 13th visit to Murrayfield, the reigning World Cup winners were off the boil, making countless errors, forced and unforced, that let Scotland off the hook in the first half. But, much like New Zealand the week before, they pounced when a chance appeared and did just enough to win the game.
The Scottish pack had started from where it left off against the All Blacks, Euan Murray outshining Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira, the front five standing solid in every scrum and pushing the Boks backwards in some. The lineouts had hiccups, but Jim Hamilton and Nathan Hines regularly outshone Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, considered the best lock pairing in the world, while the back row competed well with one of the hardest trios in the game.
The defence across the field was tight and aggressive, and improved in the back-field from the week before – holding this Bok team to one try is an impressive statistic. Mike Blair, the scrum-half and captain, again led with a zeal that impressed watching British and Irish Lions manager Gerald Davies, and with Phil Godman constantly moving the point of attack, Scotland dominated three-quarters of Saturday's 20th international between these nations.
Hines even ended Scotland's 14-month wait for a try at Murrayfield, almost exorcising that 'so-close' moment against the Springboks in 2003, when the ball was knocked from his grasp as he sought the match-winning try in the dying minutes. And yet, he admitted afterwards this was more frustrating because the team performance was better and they had led for almost an hour, only to be sunk by squandered chances.
In the one quarter the Springboks dominated, the third, they scored 14 points, and no matter how heroically the Scots battered at the Bok line, how they bounced off or wriggled out of tackles and broke into space, outfoxed or out-stripped them on the flanks, Scotland could not muster more than ten points.
That was the bare statistic that mattered at the finish of this engrossing Test match and as obvious in the Murrayfield twilight was where 12 points had been passed up by Scotland. Dan Parks came off the bench temporarily in the first half while Godman was having facial wounds treated, and missed two penalties – and though under huge pressure and in a swirling wind, they were kicks Parks would expect to convert. Godman returned, scored one, was just off with a drop-goal attempt, missed a difficult penalty from wide on the left and, with six minutes of the game left and his team 14-10 down, miscued the easiest kick of the game: 15 metres out, fractionally to the right of the posts.
That highlighted the importance of Chris Paterson, the metronomic goal-kicker who had been replaced by Hugo Southwell after just ten minutes, having suffered an almighty whack, and a suspected broken cheekbone, in a clash with flanker Juan Smith. The moment Paterson ended his 90th Test cap in pain proved to be as significant as any in this match, as he could be counted on to kick at least nine of the points offered to Parks and Godman. But, still, that was not the sum total of Scotland's profligacy.
First, the team deserve praise for conjuring a try, three minutes from half-time. Blair was the spark, with a trademark break through a ruck; Godman ignited it with a burst into the 22 and the Scottish forwards controlled ball well before Hines seized his moment to dive over by the right-hand post. After wiping blood from his eyes, Godman converted and Scotland went in at half-time 10-0 ahead; the decibel levels lifted and Saltires waved around the stadium. However, the game turned on the 17 minutes after the break, with a succession of penalty decisions against Scotland, some debatable, and one clinical finish by Jaque Fourie, a replacement for well-shackled IRB World Player of the Year Bryan Habana.
Scotland had been tight and disciplined at the tackle, and won countless penalties in the first half, but referee Dave Pearson left Blair perplexed with a series of awards the other way after the break, which led to six points for Ruan Pienaar, the Bok stand-off, and a try in the left-hand corner for Fourie after a slick backs attack.
Scotland responded by regaining control of the match in the final quarter, and showed the best and worst of where the team is at present. Godman launched an audacious attack from behind his own posts, and shortly after released Allister Hogg on a 30-metre sprint towards the tourists' 22; Blair and Ben Cairns darted towards the Boks line; the tourists were scrambling furiously, and then a Godman chip gave them the ball back. The Scots came again, South Africa threw on top-class replacements, tension grew and with six minutes to go, Godman charged to the line and Scotland won a scrum five metres out. With the Experimental Law Variations creating space for a back row move, and a solid scrum, it seemed a gilt-edged chance, but as the Boks front row popped up under pressure, Blair shifted the ball and a poor pass from Godman to Cairns ended with the centre being turned over and South Africa clearing.
Blair took full responsibility for not leaving the ball with the forwards, explaining afterwards: "You have to make decisions very quickly and my first instinct was that the ball had come out (of the scrum] – I may have been wrong."
Euan Murray admitted: "Looking at the final section of the game we made some errors of judgment. (A pushover try] was the plan, but we didn't go for it and it was spun wide. I think we were going well and we were confident; our aim was to push them backwards and they were going backwards, so it was disappointing we did not score from there. But I think the more we are in these positions the more experience we will have, and the more we will make the correct decision under pressure."
Scorers Scotland: Try: Hines; Pen: Godman; Con: Godman. South Africa: Try: Fourie; Pens: Pienaar 3.
Scotland: C Paterson; T Evans, B Cairns, N De Luca, R Lamont; P Godman, M Blair (capt); A Jacobsen, R Ford, E Murray, N Hines, J Hamilton, J White, A Hogg, J Barclay.
Subs: H Southwell for Paterson 10mins, S Gray for White 58, A Dickinson for Jacobsen 64, R Lawson for Evans 73, M Mustchin for Hines, D Hall for Ford, both 74.
Temp sub: D Parks for Godman 10-19mins, 38-45.
South Africa: C Jantjies; JP Pietersen, A Jacobs, J De Villiers, B Habana; R Pienaar, R Januarie; T Mtwarira, B Du Plessis, J Smit, B Botha, V Matfield, S Burger, P Spies, J Smith.
Subs: B Mujati for Du Plessis 5mins, J Fourie for Habana 53, A Bekker for Botha 60, F Steyn for De Villiers 65, G Steenkamp for Mtwarira, D Rossouw for Burger, R Kankowski for Spies, all 74.