The crowd of 78 542 was glued to the edge of its collective seat as the teams slugged themselves to a virtual standstill with the game-deciding moment coming in the 76th minute with a second scrum penalty deep in the Bok territory to provide enough daylight for Ireland to edge home.
Replacement Jack Crowley drilled it through the middle to add to one a few minutes before from Johnny Sexton – whom had wearily walked off – to give Ireland a five-point cushion.
The Boks’ last roll of the dice was a driving maul five metres from the Irish line, but Ireland somehow managed to halt it and referee Ben O’Keeffe blew for full time.
South Africa stunned Ireland and probably the rest of the rugby world by moving the ball wide from the kick-off receipt inside the first 30 seconds, although Faf de Klerk’s long, high pass was lost forward into touch by a stretching left wing Cheslin Kolbe.
However, the Boks disrupted the resulting Irish lineout – the first of four in succession they managed to steal – and from one such overthrown lineout, Kurt-Lee Arendse won a kick chase down field and fed Jesse Kriel, only for the centre to be pulled down from behind by the last line of defence.
Ireland enjoyed the territorial advantage in the first half, but the Boks registered the first points with a Manie Libbok goal penalty from pretty much in front and 20 metres out after six minutes of intense combat.
Try-scoring chances were few and far between amid the thunderous tackles and muscular chess being played out between two exceptional defences.
Ireland fullback Hugo Keenan slipped through on the left flank to be tackled a couple of metres short after 13 minutes and the Boks twice went close midway through the half.
First centre Damian de Allende bulldozed his way to within a metre from an attacking scrum and then partner Kriel was also stopped a metre short – what would have a try-scoring offload from the ground to his captain ricocheted off Siya Kolisi’s head.
The momentum seemed to have swung in the Boks’ favour after being pinned back in their own half for long periods. However, Ireland centre Bundee Aki slipped a tackle close to halfway from a scrum and although he was pulled down Ireland had regained field position.
Ireland were unable to beat down the Bok front door from phase after phase but found a way around the edge when Sexton found the unmarked right wing Mack Hansen to touch down unopposed.
Sexton converted to send the Boks to the change room with some thinking to do.
They responded five minutes into the half by sending on four of the Bomb squad – Ox Nche, RG Snyman, Jean Kleyn and Kwagga Smith – and immediately destroyed the Irish scrum after a 55 metre penalty by De Klerk had come back off the bar.
The Boks called for a reset from the penalty and from a dominant scrum worked the space on the wide left for Kolbe to receive a long cut-out pass from Libbok. His conversion stayed out to the left to leave the Boks lead at a tenuous two points.
Ireland overhauled that with a Sexton penalty as the game edged to the last quarter after the Boks were unusually penalised for collapsing a scrum.
Two further attempts from the tee to retake the lead by the Boks went wide – one by Libbok and another halfway shot by De Klerk – on an evening when a return of one successful kick from five attempts will be weighed against Ireland’s three form three.
Springboks 8 (3) – Try: Cheslin Kolbe. Penalty goal: Manie Libbok.
Ireland 13 (7) – Try: Mack Hansen. Conversion: Johnny Sexton. Penalty goals: Sexton, Jack Crowley.