Springbok coach Peter de Villiers hailed the contribution of his replacements as the defending World Cup champions came from behind to edge Wales 17-16 in Wellington on Sunday.
Replacement wing Francois Hougaard marked his World Cup debut with a match-winning try while hooker Bismarck du Plessis made a vital steal at the breakdown in the dying moments to deny Wales a chance to strike back.
Substitutions turned out to be South Africa’s saving grace in a match where their opponents called most of the shots and could just as easily have won had they converted all their chances.
De Villiers was nonetheless satisfied with how his men started the match and insisted the run-on team was the best one for the match.
“What a brilliant start for us. We always knew this pool was going to be tough,” said De Villiers.
“There are no easy games in this pool so to be on top of your game in the first game of the tournament was very hard but we are glad we are through this one.”
Substituting skipper John Smit with Du Plessis was one of the key moments of the match as the latter was far more effective at the tackle area where Wales had dominated.
While De Villiers said he was satisfied with the team’s composition, and his changes were mostly due to injury, he could not deny that his bench saved the day.
“If you look at how we started off, I think our starting line-up was the right one to select, but then again, they flooded the breakdowns and they never allowed us to get going,” he added.
“One or two wrong decisions that we made put us under pressure.
“That [losing Jean De Villiers and Victor Matfield to injury] caused us to go for certain players, but today our bench actually came on and made the difference and that is the reason why they are there.
“For us today there was more to win than to lose.”
The Bok coach attributed the below-par performance to the fact that it was the first time in four years the team had played a match on a Sunday.
“Three weeks we prepared for it and when we came here, our first Sunday match in four years, I was always afraid that the guys would be ready too early because on Tuesday we were ready to play - making it a long week,” he said.
De Villiers admitted he is concerned by the injuries picked up by star players De Villiers and Matfield.
De Villiers picked up a rib injury while Matfield suffered a hamstring injury.
“I am very worried about them, but we will do a full assessment after 24 hours because we want to be accurate in those kind of things before it is made public,” said De Villiers.
“I don’t call it a rugby Test today, I call it a test of character,” he said.
“We came to win the first one and we achieved our first goal. For the 22 as a whole, I respect them for what they did.”