Hougaard sinks the flimsy Wallabies at Pretoria
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With minutes to go and with the Wallabies 6 points behind, Adam Ashley-Cooper was passed the ball about 10m out from the Springboks posts. I jumped from my seat with an exultant cry of ‘Yes!’ Try time was coming up.
Then from nowhere Francois Hougaard launched himself as a human missile and smashed Ashley-Cooper, dislodging the ball in the process.
This was the Gregan tackle revisited on the Wallabies.
If ever a tackle saved a Test, Hougaard’s superb, courageous effort was that tackle. Ashley-Cooper was in under the posts for all money if Hougaard had not made his hit.
Even the flimsy Wallabies would have held out the Springboks if the try had been scored. The altitude hoodoo, 47 years without a Test win by the Wallabies on the high veldt, would then have been shattered. And a season that is slipping away into mediocrity for the Wallabies would have been saved.
The Wallabies are flimsy, physically and especially mentally, because they had numerous chances to finish off the Springboks in a Test that raced up and down the field.
The Wallabies’ first kick in the Test, in fact, came in the 12th minute of play. In this time, the Wallabies scored two converted tries. It looked as if the Springboks were in for a hiding.
I wrote in my notebook that the Springboks ‘looked tired, almost uninterested’ in making their tackles and chasing after the ball. Then Juan Smith, one of the best on the field, smashed through on the diagonal for a sensational try. From this moment on, it was game on.
As the try was being converted, I dashed into the toilet for a quick tinkle. When I came back I saw replays of James O’Connor touching down out wide from what looked like a fumble by Bryan Habana. And this is indeed is what happened. Habana dropped the kick-off and O’Connor was in for a try.
The game was moving so quickly that it looked as if it were on fast forward.
Three more tries, one more to the Wallabies and two to the Springboks were scored before half-time. The frenetic pace of play was helped by referee Alain Rolland’s insistence on the tackled player being able to place the ball.
Rolland was so punctilious about this that he seemed to penalise any attempts to play at the ball in the rucks. This applied, it seemed to me, to legal attempts. David Pocock was virtually taken out of the game as a ‘fetcher’ by this. He did not get a turnover in the match.
The effect of this scrupulousness about the rights of the tackled player was that once one of the teams got a roll on with its phases there was an inevitable breaching of the defences. It also meant that towards the end of the Test the Wallabies, who had curiously stayed at sea level for most of the week, ran out of gas.
At half-time, with the scoreline showing Australia 28 – South Africa 24, Greg Clarke, the Fox Sports excellent caller, pointed out that in the last seven Test between the two counties the team leading at half-time won the match.
Not this time.
The Springboks won the second half 18 – 3, a scoreline that was flattered somewhat by a try score by JP Pietersen in the last play of the match when the Wallabies gave up a penalty in an effort to score the winning try.
Robbie Deans came in for criticism from the commentators for not emptying out his bench. And there is something in this.
Several people have posted on The Roar the observation that there are too many play-makers in the Wallaby backline (Genia, Cooper, Giteau and O’Connor) and not enough runners. Berrick Barnes and Anthony Faingaa, with instructions to hit the ball up hard, might have been more effective towards the end of the match than Cooper (who passed beautifully but without too much effect) and Giteau (who tends to disappear in really hard Tests).
The one key substitute that was made in the forwards totally backfired. I have never been a great fan of Nathan Sharpe’s game. But it has lifted this season and he is the best of the current second rowers available for the Wallabies. It was a surprise (and a mistake) that he was taken off rather than Dean Mumm who just does not have the temperament, skills and the mongrel to be a dominating tight forward.
When Sharpe was substituted the Wallabies lineout disintegrated. Apparently, he does the calling. He tried to make the calls from the substitutes bench. But there is no substitute for actually being on the field when making these calls.
The calls from the bench clearly did not work as the Wallabies, pressing to take the lead towards the end of the match, lost two 5m lineout throws when Saia Faignaa threw the ball directly to Victor Matfield. I would have thought that the golden rule for crucial lineouts is never throw the ball anywhere near Matfield.
Phil Kearns summed up the Test as ‘the one that got away.’
There is something in this, of course. But great credit should be given for the tenacious fight-back by the Springboks. They can claim, with some justice, that they won the Test rather than that the Wallabies lost it.
Not many teams can come back from 14 – 0, 21 – 7, and 28 – 25 (at half-time) deficits. It was not until the 50th minute that they got in front for the first time. They scored five tries to the Wallabies four, and kicked some extra long range penalties (which the Wallabies failed to do).
And Hougaard made the tackle that counted. By way of contrast, too many of the Springboks tries involved soft defence by the Wallabies.
What I took out of this was that although the Springboks look to be a fading and aging side, the pride in the jersey and the great tradition of winning is still there.
It was the newest capped player in the squad, Hougaard, who made the crucial tackle and the second most capped player (Matfield with his 100 Tests) who made the vital lineout snatches.
What do the Wallabies do now?
I’d play Elsom at number 8 (and plan to get a new captain), and play Mumm on the side with Pocock. Stephen Moore needs to start to give some stability to the lineout throwing. Salesi Ma’afu gives away too many penalties at the rucks and should be replaced by James Slipper.
In the backs the Wallabies are in desperate need for some direct runners in the middle of the field.
This means, perhaps, Anthony Faignaa and Ashley-Cooper as the centres; or Ashley-Cooper coming in to inside centre and Giteau moving to outside centre; or Kurtley Beale as an outside centre, as Bob Dwyer has suggested.
It is a bit late in the season to try out these combinations and hardly the right time next Saturday when the Wallabies play the Springboks at Blomfontein, a Test they need to win.
Most importantly the Wallabies have to get it into their heads and hearts that they need to start winning these close Tests.
This is the eighth Test in the last year or so they have lost when leading at half-time. Good teams do not lose when they are leading at half time.
The flimsy Wallabies somehow have to become the good as gold Wallabies. But on the evidence of Pretoria they are a long way off this right now, damn it.
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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.