The Wallabies go into the RWC semis on defence
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Those last few minutes when the Wallabies were protecting their two point lead, 11-9, while trying to keep the Springbok from getting within a drop kick or a penalty shot range were excruciating. It was like having your toe nails and your teeth being extracted at the same time.
As the Wallabies knocked over Springboks runner after runner a Boks supporters behind me noted: ‘The Wallabies are putting on their greatest defensive effort ever.’
Then came the final scrum. There was the agony of wondering if the match could be lost right on the final whistle.
The scrum was just inside the Springboks half. It was probably, but not definitively, out of range for Morne Steyn if a penalty was conceded.
The scrum went down to gasps from the crowd. No penalty. Whew!
A final feed. The Wallaby scrum held. Will Genia got the ball into his hands and booted it as far as he could into the stands.
The stadium erupted as the kick was being made with excited Wallaby supporters jumping up and down, hugging each other (even beefy men) and roaring with delight.
Walking into the stadium on a perfect winter day in Wellington (although it is supposed to be spring), still, fine with not a cloud in the sky and with the cold as sharp as a knife it was wonderful to see groups of supporters of both teams walking in together.
There was none of the bitterness or nastiness that football supporters dump on the opposing supporters.
A volunteer yelled out to the supporters streaming into the stadium: ‘There’s a prediction for the Boks by 12.’
Great roars of approval came from the Springbok supporters.
‘Come on Aussies, put in your prediction,’ the volunteer suggested. But there were no more predictions.
That 12 points call intrigued me because in a ferocious attack on the Springboks coaching staff and team, Mark Keohane predicted a loss to Australia by exactly 12 points. Keohane is a controversial figure in South African rugby.
He is a journalist who wants to be a major player in South African rugby. He has worked for the SARU. He has a website that is often controversial and vitriolic (as I know to my cost when articles of mine have been posted on it).
Keohane said that the Springboks were too old and poorly coached. They did not deserve to remain in the tournament. They had played unimpressive rugby. The Wallabies would be too well-organised and too quick for the old legs of the Springboks. The Wallabies by 12 points.
This argument was interesting because this is what happened in the Wales – Ireland boilover. Ireland played 10 players in their 22 aged over 29. Wales, on the other hand, had 10 players under 23.
The Springboks for their part had 18 players in their tournament 30 from RWC 2007. They were the oldest and most experienced team South Africa has fielded. But they desperately needed players with young legs.
I thought it was a mistake by the Springboks not to play Patrick Lambie at number 10 and Steyn at fullback.
Lambie is young, gifted and has the skills and speed to stretch the defence and split it rather than just bash away at the defensive wall.
In this context, and given the final result of the quarter-final, Australian rugby should be grateful to Robbie Deans who virtually ditched the 2007 team and built, sometimes with painful results, a new team that is clearly competitive in RWC 2011.
Having said that, and acknowledging that a win is a win especially in a knock-out match, the fact is that the Wallabies made very hard weather of defeating the Springboks.
They played at times so slowly that it looked as if they were playing in slow motion. This slow game helped keep the Springboks in the game.
When the Wallabies did open up, they split the Springboks easily as Keohane suggested they would.
After establishing an 8 – 0 lead, the Wallabies kept on kicking the ball back to the Springboks. My belief is that you can’t score points when the other team has the ball, so why kick it to them?
It was 27 minutes before the Springboks had their first kicking penalty, which Steyn converted.
Both sides kept dropping the ball. My theory on this was that the bitter cold was making handling the dry ball quite difficult.
At half-time I heard an Australian supporter call out to his mate: ‘We’re kicking too much.’ Quite right, I thought.
With about 30 minutes to play the Springboks finally did what Keohane said they should have done at the beginning: they brought on Bismarck du Plessis.
At the first scrum he packed down, the Springboks got their first penalty from monstering the Wallaby scrum. Then he charged down a drop out and Jean de Villers from a series of South Africans attacks let the Wallabies off the hook by passing forward as the Springboks went across for a try.
The energised Springboks kicked a penalty and a drop goal, taking the men in green to an unlikely 9 – 8 lead.
Springboks supporters who had sat mute for much of the time suddenly came to life. They roared their heads off. And just as suddenly the Springbok forwards seemed to be charged with a shot of adrenalin. They ran like school boys from lineout to lineout and from ruck to ruck.
The game looked as if it had passed away from the Wallabies. But then the Springboks made the fatal mistake of starting their kicking game.
Quade Cooper, who played poorly while being booed every time he touched the ball, bravely ran into the big Springboks runners. The Wallabies surged back. They forced a lineout. Radike Samo was slammed to the ground while taking a lineout throw.
I wrote in my notebook that James O’Connor, about 35m out and on an angle, was confronting the ‘most important kick of his life.’ You knew that if the kick went over, the Wallabies would probably win. If he missed, the Wallabies were going to lose.
The kick was as straight and true as if it were an arrow shot from a longbow.
Then came those agonising final minutes as the Wallabies made tackle after tackle, not missing one, often ganging up on a Springboks runner and driving him back into the turf.
And finally the last scrum and Genia’s kick into the stands.
Walking out of the stadium, with morose Springboks supporters telling each other how they did not fancy being ear-bashed by jubilant Wallaby supporters, I saw a man dressed in black gear carrying a placard: ‘We don’t care who wins here. C’mon the All Blacks.’
A well-dressed businessman type passed me as I pressed on to get home to see the tough All Blacks – Argentina match.
He was talking into his mobile: ‘It’s all on for Eden Park next Sunday .. ‘ he was saying.
Bring it on!
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.
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