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They gave one of the great defensive performances of the age and their ability to hang on for the final 20 minutes was sensational.
And the All Blacks can't complain. Yes they were denied a penalty in the last play when the TMO told the referee two Boks players were offside and it was penalty New Zealand, but Nigel Owens didn't hear.
But they didn't take their chances when they made them – not enough of them and they made too many unforced and forced errors.
Beauden Barrett didn't kick his goals and even in the last play of the game they could still and should have won it but Damian McKenzie let go of the ball.
And besides, the Boks were superb and they earned the win. Their attacking rugby was good, excellent at times, but what about that defence?
They just didn't miss a tackle around the fringes and the All Blacks battered away at the ruck but couldn't score in those final five minutes despite having laid siege to the Boks' line.
South Africa made them work for every metre and produced some of the best scrambling defence of the Rugby Championship so far which was as welcome as it was surprising.
The Boks did everything that was expected, except they did it better, with more accuracy, intensity and longevity.
Their linespeed on defence was the key to their game. They were about perfect in timing the charge and legally swarmed the All Blacks.
They hit them hard, too. The All Blacks ball carriers couldn't dominate the collisions, or not enough of them anyway, to generate the relentless quick ball on which their game thrives.
The Boks defence was also good enough to cut down the decision-making time available to the playmakers and an age-old truism was there for all to see – that if the All Blacks are not given time and space in which to play, they look much the same as everyone else.
But what was perhaps a little unexpected was how well the Boks used the ball. They showed in June against England that they have the ability to be expansive and threatening with it, but there hadn't been much of that on view in the Rugby Championship.
Desperate to avoid a third straight defeat, they tapped into their inner creative selves and scored three first half tries that came about courtesy of a little bit of everything, but in no small measure, their willingness to trust and use their pass and catch contributed.
It meant that for the first time this year the All Blacks were genuinely under pressure on the scoreboard and it looked like some of the tension crept into their work and thinking.
The fact South Africa wouldn't crack or relent seemed to surprise the All Blacks. They slipped off tackles, threw passes that weren't on and too often veered to the touchline and were bundled out when they didn't need to be.
There was a general raggedness to their play: a sense they were unquestionably rattled and a touch frustrated.
The game wouldn't go their way at all after a promising start and each time they clawed something back, they would give another something away.
A silly penalty before the break; an intercept pass just after it and some careless goalkicking from Beauden Barrett.
But that's what pressure does – it causes mistakes and makes test match football what it is.
South Africa 36 (A. Dyantyi (2), W. le Roux, W. Whiteley, C. Kolbe tries; H. Pollard 4 cons, pen)
New Zealand 34 (J. Barrett, A. Smith, R. Ioane (2), C. Taylor, A. Savea tries; B. Barrett 2 cons)