New Zealand closed in on the Rugby Championship trophy with a hard-fought 21-11 victory over South Africa at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
Replacement scrum-half Aaron Smith pounced in the second half for a superb individual try to propel his side to a vital win and cap a rollercoaster of a week that had seen him dropped to the bench for of team protocol in the wake of the All Blacks' victory over Argentina last weekend.
Fullback Israel Dagg had earlier got the hosts on their way with a try midway through the first half with fly-half Aaron Cruden steering them home with three penalties and a conversion. But it was an inspirational performance from captain Richie McCaw that set the tone for a gutsy display that takes their unbeaten run in the competition to four games and leaves them firmly in control of the battle for southern hemisphere supremacy.
The Springboks lacked nothing in commitment and a dazzling try from winger Bryan Habana gave them the lead in the early stages of the second half but a woeful kicking display from an under-fire Morne Steyn and some questionable tactics eventually proved costly.
South Africa missed two early opportunities, with Habana unable to hold an awkward pass with the line open and Frans Steyn missing a shot at goal from almost 50m on the angle. But when the All Blacks infringed at a breakdown, Morne Steyn kicked truly from 36m to open the scoring after 18 minutes.
However, the All Blacks struck back immediately, hooker Andrew Hore making good ground and No.8 Kieran Read laying on the pass to Dagg a clear run to the line to make it 5-3. Morne Steyn was to the right with a penalty from 44m and in front and the All Blacks swept back on to the attack. Frans Steyn was just under the bar with a penalty attempt from almost 10m inside his own half, a reminder of what distance he is capable of.
The Springboks were giving as good as they received in the forward exchanges, with lock Flip van der Merwe prominent, but Morne Steyn missed his second consecutive penalty attempt. He then missed two other attempts at goal and the Springboks had the poor return of one success out of six to help the All Blacks lead at the interval. The All Blacks were fortunate to be ahead, though, as the Springboks had 58% territory and forced six turnovers from the All Blacks while conceding two.
Habana threatened early in the second spell but lost the ball forward in the tackle of Aaron Smith and the chance was lost. Habana, though, gave the Springboks the lead with a brilliant individual try eight minutes into the half. He raced from a line-out 40m out, chipped and re-gathered to score in the right corner. But Morne Steyn missed again and Aaron Cruden kicked a neat penalty three minutes later to tie the scores at 8-8 as the arm wrestle continued.
Winger Cory Jane had been safe under the high ball for the All Blacks and made another fine take as the Springboks tried to pressurise New Zealand's back three. South Africa were kicking too much ball away and the All Blacks made them pay when Smith dummied and sidestepped through the defence from 25m out to score a gem of a try.
South Africa suffered another blow when replacement prop Dean Greyling was sin-binned as he dived indiscriminately into a ruck. Johan Goosen took over from the out-of-sorts Morne Steyn but missed with a long-range attempt from 55m to make it one goal from eight for the Springboks. But he was on target from 39m soon after and it was 15-11 with 11 minutes left. Cruden's two late penalties added gloss to the final result as the hosts held on.
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen was far from happy with the performance. "When we go back and review, there were a number of what we call avoidable penalties," he said. "We made some fairly average mistakes at times. We did some fairly decent things as well and the opposition weren't going to go away and they came to play. They brought a great attitude and physicality and when you get a Springboks side like that, they're hard to play."
Haban also demanded better from the Boks. "We can probably look at some real opportunities and that is one area we can learn from the All Blacks, they had one or two opportunities and made the most of it," he said.
"We have to learn form that. We can't continue to use the excuse that we're a young side. Guys like myself, Jean (de Villiers), Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn, have been there for a while. We know what we expect from a clash with New Zealand and we let ourselves down.
"We fight hard but you can't keep making the same mistakes. As a team, this loss will hurt us pretty bad. We need to take a good look at ourselves. We have to learn from these experiences but we can't continuing learning, we have to do it (on the field)."