Rugby high society is increasingly becoming a two-team club as South Africa once again emphasised the widening gap between them and Australia with an utterly convincing 28-8 victory over the Wallabies in their Rugby Championship Test at Newlands. By KEN BORLAND.
There was still some disappointment around the Springbok camp, however, as they failed to obtain the bonus point for scoring four tries, leaving them with a massive mountain to climb if they are to snatch the title from New Zealand, who maintained their status as the world’s number one team by beating Argentina 33-15 and managing to get a bonus point by scoring their fourth try in the final minute.
It means the Springboks have to beat the All Blacks with a bonus point next weekend at Ellis Park and prevent them from earning a point if they are to win the competition. Sadly for rugby, it seems referee Romain Poite’s name will forever be linked with the 2013 Rugby Championship as he gifted New Zealand a crucial bonus point when he erroneously sent Bismarck du Plessis from the field in Auckland.
It shows how far the Springboks have come under coach Heyneke Meyer that one of their most convincing wins ever against the Wallabies has been greeted with only muted praise.
Captain Jean de Villiers admitted he was disappointed his team could not secure the bonus point, especially after scoring two tries in the first 14 minutes, but he pointed out that, even if they fail to win the tournament, it has been a successful, much-improved campaign by the Springboks.
“We wanted to win the game first, and we knew if we built a comfortable lead we would be able to attack more,” said De Villiers.
“Two tries were scored in the first half, so it gave us 40 minutes to score two more. Unfortunately we didn’t do it, although we did create lots of opportunities. We’re still not happy with areas of our game, but we beat the Aussies by 20 points and if we were offered that at the start of the year we would have taken it.
“The bottom line for us, and the way we are looking at it, is that we have won four out of five games in the Rugby Championship and we are in with a chance of winning it next week in front of a sold-out Ellis Park against the World Cup champions and best team in the world. That is a wonderful opportunity for us and it is a measure of our progress since last year. We wanted to still be in the championship after tonight and we have managed that,” he said.
Meyer said he too was satisfied that his team was in contention for the crown going into their last game.
“I was really worried about this game because we could have easily looked past this game to the next game,” Meyer said. “We obviously didn’t get the bonus point, but I think the great thing is that we’re in with a chance and that’s the only thing I’ve asked of the team. We’ve got a lot of respect for the All Blacks, but if you’ve got a chance, you’re still in the competition,” Meyer said.
The Springboks produced some scintillating rugby in the first half, double waves of Green-and-Gold attackers keeping the Wallaby defence constantly under pressure. They were allowed to by the quick ball set up by their forwards and the snappy service of scrumhalf Fourie du Preez. It meant the home side played at a pace in the opening 20 minutes that has seldom been seen before from them – the first half of their match against England at Ellis Park last June being the only recent example.
Tries by hooker Adriaan Strauss and fullback Zane Kirchner, who left Israel Folau for dead with a lovely shimmy, put the Springboks in complete control. They were playing with pace, width and vision, epitomised by Kirchner’s try, which had been set up by a superb pass out wide to JJ Engelbrecht by De Villiers, after the fullback had run a dummy line to draw in two defenders.
As if their dominance was not enough, the Springboks were presented with a gift in the 28th minute when Michael Hooper was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle. It was a ridiculous decision by TMO Graham Hughes because centre Engelbrecht leapt into his tackle and then through his arms, but the Wallabies flank was sin-binned for not bringing the tackled player safely to ground. It was a prime example of why many people have a serious problem with the tip-tackle law, because it can be manipulated unfairly against the tackler.
But even though they were playing with close to 80% of possession, and moving the ball with tremendous flair – even impressive loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira was throwing one-handed show-and-goes! – the Springboks could only add a Morne Steyn penalty while the Aussies were one man short.
Lock Flip van der Merwe then succumbed to the niggle the demoralised Wallabies were reverting to and was rightly yellow-carded for making no attempt to tackle wing Joe Tomane, instead hitting him in his face with the elbow.
It was on the stroke of half-time, but the loss of a tight forward meant the Springboks struggled to gain the same momentum at the start of the second half. One could forgive them for trying to replicate the expansive, free-flowing play of the opening quarter, but sticking to some tighter rugby and building pressure again may have caused the Australians to disintegrate.
“We lost structure at some points in the game and our discipline wasn’t great,’ admitted vice-captain Strauss. “We tried to play a bit too expansively at times and it didn’t come off.”
Further yellow cards were to follow, and again the Springboks could not complain about their’s, while Australia had every right to feel bemused.
Duane Vermeulen was correctly sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on in the red zone as the Wallabies mounted a concerted attack in the 66th minute, but the only action the TMO should have taken nine minutes later when Sitaleki Timani charged into a ruck should have been to warn his team-mates to wear helmets because the lock went shoulder-first into his own players.
The vision of Du Preez and the finishing skill of wing Willie le Roux combined for a try in the 71st minute and the Springboks had nine minutes, half of them with the opposition again one man short, in order to secure the bonus point and make life easier for themselves next week.
But a Du Plessis lineout throw went astray and Siya Kolisi chose the wrong option and was turned over, and the crucial try never came. Instead, it was the Australians who snatched a late try as they took a quick lineout and Quade Cooper launched a cross-kick, which replacement wing Chris Feauai-Sautia caught and dotted down for a try on debut.
It was a curate’s egg type performance by the Springboks. They certainly produced some top-class rugby in the first quarter and a 20-point win over Australia should never be scoffed at: it was South Africa’s biggest win over the Wallabies in Cape Town (beating 17-3 in the first meeting in 1933) and, in the 78 Tests between the two countries, there have only been six bigger winning margins for the Springboks.
Worryingly for the Australians, their last three defeats to South Africa are in that top seven – 31-8 last year in Pretoria, 38-12 in Brisbane three weeks ago, and now 28-8 at Newlands.
As far as individual heroes go, Eben Etzebeth had a massive game, omnipresent at the rucks and the leading tackler amongst the forwards. Openside flank Francois Louw also produced a dynamic display.
There are likely to be a couple of changes to the Springbok team for the finale against the All Blacks. Engelbrecht limped off just before the hour mark with a leg injury, but this will provide centre prodigy Jan Serfontein with a wonderful opportunity to make a mark with a full 80 minutes against the world’s number one side.
A citing has been made against Van der Merwe which is likely to result in some sort of suspension.
But, a defence based on All Blacks centre Ma’a Nonu getting away with just a yellow card for a similar assault on De Villiers in Auckland must have a chance of succeeding if Sanzar are to maintain even a hint of consistency in their judicial process. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Francois Louw takes the ball from team mate Duane Vermeulen during their Rugby Championship match against Australia in Cape Town, September 28, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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