PRETORIA (REUTERS) - Coach Rassie Erasmus says South Africa can be contenders at the Rugby World Cup in Japan next year, a belief fuelled by their performance for 75 minutes in Saturday's (Oct 6) heart-breaking 32-30 Rugby Championship loss to New Zealand at Loftus Versfeld.
The Springboks blew a 12-point lead in the dying stages of the game, but had largely controlled the flow of the match to that point.
Their performance, coupled with a 36-34 win in Wellington last month, is a vast improvement for a side that was humiliated 57-0 by the world champions just a year ago.
"I'm definitely happy with the progress and the growth we have shown," Erasmus told reporters.
"South African rugby fans are not stupid and there will be criticism of this defeat, but we have shown growth and we will cling on to that.
"The last three games between us have been decided by no more than two points and when we run out against them (New Zealand) now, the game can go either way. I'm proud we've got back to that position.
"It gives me hope that and belief that if we do a few things right we will be in with a real chance at the next year's World Cup."
In the final match in Salta later, Australia recovered from a disastrous first half to score five second-half tries and record the second largest comeback in Test match history, with a 45-34 win over Argentina that enabled them to avoid the wooden spoon.
The result means the Wallabies leapfrog Argentina to finish third in the table, behind South Africa and winners New Zealand.
It, however, still left Argentina with two wins in this year's tournament, the first time they have recorded two victories since they joined the southern hemisphere's rugby elite in 2012.
The difference in the Pretoria game ultimately came after both sides had emptied their benches, with New Zealand able to raise their intensity and the Boks battling to contain them with less experience on the pitch.
Erasmus was not surprised by the fight shown from the visitors, or their ability to raise their intensity levels.
"I remember from when I was in Ireland, seeing New Zealand come back against the Irish from an impossible position, so I never thought the game was in the bag, even with five minutes to go," he said.
"That's New Zealand's culture, that's how they do things and that's where we have to get to. We will learn from this."
Captain Siya Kolisi rued some "soft moments" in the closing stages from his side that allowed the All Blacks to score two tries in the final four minutes.
"For 70 minutes we did a lot of things right, but we had some soft moments and against the number one team in the world you can't afford to do that," he said.
"That's probably where we lost it. I don't think we deserved to lose but they really stuck to their game and perhaps we switched off for a split second."
The Boks now face a northern hemisphere tour to finish their season, starting with a clash against England at Twickenham on Nov 3. They also meet France, Scotland and Wales.