Super Cooper and Wallabies stun lacklustre Boks
The Springboks, the designated ‘home’ team, suffered a 28-26 loss against Australia at the Cbus Super Stadium in Gold Coast on Sunday. A superb kicking display from Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper gave Australia their first Rugby Championship win of 2021.
South Africa 26 (11) Australia 28 (19)
The recall of Quade Cooper to the Wallaby side proved a masterstroke by coach Dave Rennie as the playmaker contributed a match-winning 23 points on his return to topple the Springboks.
Cooper landed an impeccable eight from eight kicks at goal, including the match-winning deciding penalty from 40m out, two minutes after the final hooter had sounded. Defeat left the Boks on 10 log points, five behind the All Blacks at the midway point of the 2021 Rugby Championship.
In contrast to Cooper’s accuracy, the Springbok goalkickers had a bad day, with Handré Pollard missing three attempts and Damian Willemse another. In all, the Boks left 10 points on the table and that largesse was costly in the end.
The Springboks haven’t won in Australia since 2013 and the drought continues. They have won only five of 31 Tests in Australia since readmission. After beating the British & Irish Lions and winning five of six Tests before this one in 2021 after a 20-month hiatus due to Covid, the Boks were favourites going into the match.
Unusually, the Boks outscored the Wallabies by three tries to one but still lost the match. The world champions’ tries all came from rolling mauls, with hookers Bongi Mbonambi scoring one and Malcolm Marx two.
But after winning the opening aerial exchanges, skipper Siya Kolisi’s 16th minute yellow card for a tip tackle on Tom Banks gave the home team momentum that the Boks failed to fully wrest back. It was the first of two yellow cards for the world champions, with Willie le Roux also earning a yellow card for what was ruled a deliberate knock-on.
While Kolisi was off the field the Wallabies scored their only try of the match through wing Andrew Kelleher, who was put into space with the numerical advantage. The pass from centre Samu Kerevi looked suspiciously forward, but English referee Luke Pearce opted not to have a second look.
While the Boks might consider themselves unlucky with that pass, the reality was that they did not make the most of the chances they had.
South Africa were lacklustre, ill-disciplined and sloppy. Australia were the better team and showed more street smarts. They effectively blocked Bok kick chasers, and although Wallaby players appeared to be “changing lanes” to impede the chasers, they got away with it and so they continued to do it.
“We will have to have a look at that and ask questions about whether the Wallaby players looked over their shoulders and made late line changes,” Bok coach Jacques Nienaber said. “For me to make that accusation now without seeing the video will be tough, because I can’t say it with absolute conviction.
“All I know is our wings battled to get into the air, but when they were able to contest, they were very good.
“Australia played well and they deserved to win. I don’t think we were great today. We were a little bit off our game, especially from a discipline point of view. The reality is we scored three tries to one but conceded 23 points from the kicking tee. There’s the answer to why we lost.”
Australia were also poorly behaved, conceding 17 penalties and also suffering two yellow cards – lock Matt Philip was carded for the team’s repeated infringements and hooker Folau Fainga’a for a dangerous tackle.
With those stats the Springboks should have won at a canter, yet they fell just short.
The one positive aspect was that the Boks somehow led the match at full-time before they conceded a late penalty from a scrappy scrum. Replacement No 8 Jasper Wiese, in his desperation to tidy up the loose ball was deemed to have held it on the ground and he was penalised, allowing Cooper the chance to win the game.
Considering the fairytale recall for Cooper after more than four years in the Test wilderness, it was inevitable he would slot the difficult winning kick to give the Wallabies a needed victory after three heavy defeats by the All Blacks.
“The first thing was, I looked up and I had a kick from a similar spot just before that and I only just had the legs to get it over,” Cooper said after the match.
“I had a little chat to myself and said: ‘Is this your ego that wants you to take it? Your peers are backing you, you’ve got to back yourself as well.’ ”
But it wasn’t just his goalkicking that stood out. Cooper marshalled the Wallabies expertly, reining in his natural attacking flair with a more conservative, more mature display.
He kicked for field position occasionally and drew in strike runners around him. But the Wallabies played very conservatively against a team that does the same. They came with a clear plan and stuck to it, showing their growing maturity as a team after some helter skelter rugby against the All Blacks led to many soft tries against them.
“Quade’s confidence and experience made a difference because we didn’t want to overplay tonight,” Rennie said. “He had a big influence on that. Quade was really clear and able to implement under pressure.
“We were smart, we kicked appropriately, we played a fair bit of territory and got rewarded. It’s another learning curve.”
Australia kicked the ball 21 times, which was a little more than usual for them, while the Boks played their familiar aerial game, launching 38 kicks from hand.
But they didn’t back it up with the same smothering intensity that has become commonplace and several players – Pollard and centre Lukhanyo Am in particular – had poor matches by their usual high standards.
Am botched a try when he was over the line and knocked on another opportunity close to the Wallaby line, while Pollard’s mediocre goalkicking cost his team the chance to put scoreboard pressure on their opponents.
Australia only had one realistic try-scoring opportunity, which they took, and when the Boks conceded penalties in range Cooper was good enough to take the points.
The teams meet again next weekend in Brisbane and Nienaber will have some thinking to do because the Boks meet the impressive All Blacks in two weeks’ time. New Zealand thrashed Argentina 39-0 in the earlier game at the same venue and look to be returning to their best form.
Considering Nienaber picked his strongest available team to face the Wallabies and it underperformed, does he turn to Elton Jantjies to replace Pollard in particular?
Given the Boks’ set-up, they are unlikely to panic and after the match Nienaber and skipper Siya Kolisi seemed relaxed. They were very much in the “it was a bad day at the office” mindset.
The Boks have too much credit in the back to doubt them just yet, but the dip in performance, accuracy and intensity was dramatic compared to their performances earlier this season. Another display like this one, in the return match next week, would be alarming.
South Africa – Tries: Bongi Mbonambi, Malcom Marx (2). Conversion: Handré Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (3).
Australia – Try: Andrew Kelleher. Conversion: Quade Cooper. Penalties: Cooper (7). DM