Australia were deserved winners over South Africa on Sunday. Now, the response from the Springboks will be telling, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
It spoke volumes about the character of the Springboks that they nearly managed to claim a comeback victory over the Wallabies on a rare day off as a team, and certainly for general Handre Pollard.
But sometimes character, and a considerable reliance on a dominant maul, is not enough.
For the majority of the match, the Springboks were clearly the second best side. The Boks’ much-vaunted defence lacked its usual accuracy. The team’s aerial game was defused. Pollard was strangely out of sorts, and seemed to have left his kicking boots back at the hotel.
And yet, somehow, some way, the Boks fought their way back into a one-point lead with just minutes remaining. It appeared that a great escape on the Gold Coast was there for the taking, but a dramatic turn of events enabled the Wallabies to have one more shot at goal.
Quade Cooper was the man who stepped up and casually slotted the match-winning kick, and while the result will hurt for South Africa, few could argue that it wasn’t a fair outcome.
Cooper was sensational throughout the clash, and completely outplayed Pollard, who endured a night to forget.
It’s not the first time the Springboks have been thrown off their game in Australia, and on this occasion they will know that they were often their own worst enemies.
The Springboks’ usually impressive discipline let them down, with two unnecessary yellow cards applying plenty of pressure at the worst possible times.
From the outset, the Wallabies employed some astute gamesmanship by running blocking lines that disrupted the Boks’ kick-chase, while they looked to avoid kicking to touch and allowing South Africa to feed off the lineout.
Prior to the start of Sunday’s match, the plan had been for this article to focus on player ratings, but it says a lot that it was almost impossible to pick out more than one or two Springbok standouts.
The stats from the official Sanzaar website reveal that the Wallabies beat 21 defenders to the paltry four that the Springboks managed, with the hosts dominating all the key attacking areas.
That was to be expected, but 21 missed tackles from the Boks (to just four from Australia) could never have been predicted.
Then there was the shocking 33% conversion and 60% penalty goal accuracy, and 11 penalties conceded, that left the Boks playing catch up rugby.
As the pressure came on, the Springboks were able to turn to their powerful maul to nearly pull of a Gold Coast robbery, but a messy final scrum that could have secured them possession and a winning result was perhaps befitting of a performance that was uncharacteristically out of sorts.
The Boks won’t be panicking, not by any means, but they will be left to wonder why this display was so sorely lacking the accuracy that led them to a famous 2-1 series win over the British & Irish Lions.
With a quick turnaround, I’d imagine the Boks will be far better in the return match against Australia, and would back them to rebound in victorious fashion, but they will know this unexpected slip up could potentially cost them the Rugby Championship title when all is said and done.
The All Blacks now have a handy five-point lead at the top of the standings, and it’s a considerable buffer when you consider all signs suggest another bonus-point win over Argentina next weekend is a highly likely prospect.
But what Sunday’s match revealed is the fact that the Springboks do need to be able to add some improved variety, execution and accuracy to their play.
In nearly pulling off what would have been a stunning comeback win, the Boks again displayed the character of champions, but there were far too many other shortcomings to suggest they would have been deserving of victory.
Some elements of their game are relative quick fixes, and now the manner of next Saturday’s response will reveal a lot more about a Springbok side that needs to bring some variety to a predictable approach that the Wallabies exposed, and proved is far from infallible.