Jannie De Beer, Jonny Wilkinson … Francois Steyn? If anyone had forgotten that this is a rugby World Cup year, the sight of the young Springbok fullback Francois Steyn belting the skin off a Gilbert at Newlands should have been enough to remind you. The World Cup is almost here and South Africa was forced by a bold Wallaby outfit to show their drop kicking hand.
After a week of ridiculous hype, South Africa found that two wins against England’s Under 21 team and Super 14 victory in the worst year of the competition’s history are not really worth that much. The pressure of such foolish self-indulgence almost broke the Springboks who were surprised by the Wallaby’s second quarter gusto.
The return of the old Brumbies halves and midfield combination was supported by an improving Wallaby forward pack. The Aussie scrum was probably beaten on points over the stretch of the game but this is nothing to be ashamed of. South Africa’s pack is genuinely world class and was made to fight for their victory by the battling Australians. The difference in the strength of the Australian scrum is surely visible enough now for even the most fervent of John Connolly’s critics to acknowledge.
Both Australian hooker’s faltered on their long lineout throws. Adam Freier’s first two throws were called long and neither found their mark. Ewen McKenzie’s statement that the Freier-Vickerman combination is one of the most competitive in the world was shown to be equally inaccurate. Stephen Moore’s long throws weren’t much better but he showed his extra bulk also comes with fantastic hands, delivering Matt Giteau a great try after a period of prolonged Wallaby pressure.
For South Africa, Schalk Burger was in everything and was used with great effect in the midfield with his legs pumping long into the tackle. Bakkies Botha and Pierre Spies both lived up the Springbok mythology of massive, rampaging forwards with more than a little touch of the thug about them. Butch James however looked like the team’s Ringo Starr, offering little more than weak rugby league style kicks to try and break the well defended Wallaby line. Outside him the Springbok’s outside threats will want to get more ball in their hands during the world cup.
The game was fast, hard and heated and English referee Wayne Barnes was not up to the standard required. Neither, for that matter, was Australian fullback, Julian Huxley and no amount of spin from certain parts of the Australian rugby media can hide the fact that the gap between him and Chris Latham is monstrous. Australia lacked a counter-attack and Huxley offered no threat. With the boot he kicked as many shockers as he did long touch finders. Counter attacking is the most important area of the game that Australia must improve in and Latham’s return to fitness is crucial.
At the moment, Australia’s back three are their Achilles heal. The Springboks, All Blacks, Irish and French all have exciting fullbacks and wingers who offer their teams effective counter attacking options either in broken play or when returning kicks. Lote Tuqiri did very little to justify his apparent automatic selection and there was no evidence of any real improvement in his pace. On the other side of the park Drew Mitchell had more bad moments then good ones and will be hoping he gets another chance to impress. Perhaps Lachlan Turner’s amazing year isn’t quite over yet.
Disappointingly the Wallabies had no answer in the second half for the inevitable response of all South African teams under pressure – stuff it up the jumper, get angry and shunt. Brilliant and even brilliantly-illegal defense held the Boks out but the Wallabies will need a spectacular knock out punch from their back three if they want to play rope-a-dope against the big boys.
Whilst the Springboks won the battle the world cup war is yet to be fought in French trenches. Finding their feet of clay, the Boks won a fantastic game but not by as much as they thought they would. The Wallabies on the other hand lost but not in the manner most people expected and not by as many points either. The Australians can genuinely take a lot from this game and look forward with some confidence to playing this South African side on the return leg of the competition.