Wallabies defeated, not destroyed by Springboks
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Australia's Michael Hooper, left, is challenged by South Africa's Duane Vermeulen, center, during their rugby championship at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature for the quality of his writing and his dominant theme about the invincibility of the human spirit which was summed up in the aphorism: Man can be defeated but not destroyed.
This was my feeling about the Wallabies after watching their brave effort in holding a rampant Springboks side 31-8 and five tries to one.
I know many Roarers will find this approach strange. I understand this.
I was asked about the match by someone who lives nearby when I went out for a walk on Sunday morning. The neighbour suggested to me that the Wallabies were terrible. I asked him him if he’d watched the Test.
He told me he hadn’t. But he’d read accounts of the match and concluded from them that the Wallabies must have been woeful.
I told him to watch the Test. He would see that the scoreline exaggerated the dominance of the Springboks.
Moreover, in the circumstances, with multiple injuries, playing with 14 men (a yellow card and using up the seven substitutes when Tatafu Polota-Nau had to go off) for 20 minutes, at altitude where the Wallabies have won only three Tests (I repeat, won only three Tests since 1933), the Wallabies played out the Test to its final moments and never capitulated.
In 1997, for instance, the Wallabies conceded 40 or so points in the second half against the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
This was a disgraceful effort (or lack of effort). Greg Smith lost his job as Wallaby coach after this disaster, and rightly so.
But Sunday’s Test at Loftus Versfeld was not in this sort of category. The Wallabies were beaten 31-8 and by five tries to one and endured all sorts of injuries throughout the Test to key players.
Some hours later at La Plata, the Pumas were defeated 54-13 and by seven tries to two and did not lose any of their key players during the Test to injuries.
The half-time score in the Pumas – All Blacks Test was 32-8, a worse result for the Pumas playing at home than the 31-8 scoreline at the end of the Springboks – Wallabies Test, which was played in South Africa.
The All Blacks deservedly have been praised for their masterful play against the Pumas. And I believe that before the boot is put into the Wallabies, credit should be given to the Springboks for their enterprising and often deadly attacking play.
In my opinion, this team, with six starting plays aged 22 or under, revealed the real genius of South African rugby. Big, robust, physical, relentless and ball-winning forwards and backs, especially the quicksilver Bryan Habana, with speed and an appetite to score tries and make breaks.
Getting rid of Morne Steyn, with his hands of lead, is the key to the Springboks revival. The youngster, Johan Goosen, is the first Springboks flyhalf since Henry Honnibal to have quick hands, quick feet and a quick mind.
With Goosen leading the way, the Springboks played the ensemble rugby that has really eluded them since the glory days of the late 1990s when, under coach Nick Mallet, they won 17 consecutive Tests.
Even before injuries started to deplete the ranks of the Wallabies, there were some instances of old habits for them dying hard. And in this sense, the Wallabies remain their own worst enemies. The first three kicks by Berrick Barnes, for instance, were terrible, either coming off the side of his boot or giving away possession too easily to the Springboks.
It took the Springboks nearly 20 minutes before they scored their first try, and this was achieved while Digby Ioane was lying injured and out of play. The half-time score was 14-3, eminently gettable for the Wallabies provided they had the players on the field who could lead the charge down. But in just about the last play of the half, Adam Ashley-Cooper knocked himself unconscious in stopping Zane Kirchner from scoring a try.
Andrew Slack, a great Wallaby captain and now an insightful commentator on the game, took John O’Neill to task earlier in the week for making the point that the Wallabies have virtually another XV off the park out injured.
In my opinion, no team, not even the All Blacks with their great depth, could be consistently competitive, especially away from home, with players of the calibre of James Horwill, David Pocock, Will Genia, Stephen Moore, James O’Connor, Drew Mitchell, Scott Higginbotham and, dare we mention his name, Quade Cooper (perhaps not, in light of last week’s nonsense), all unavailable to play for the Wallabies.
And now going into a difficult second half with the Springboks playing strongly and expansively and on a ground where the Wallabies have never defeated the Springboks (South Africa’s Eden Park), the Wallabies had lost their best defensive back.
One of the marks of the Wallabies this season, and it is the mark of a gutsy team, has been their ability to come back from being behind at half-time to win the Test. What has to be understood here is that over 90 per cent of the time in big matches the team that leads at half-time will win. So to turn a game around like this takes a lot of heart.
The Wallabies did not do this against the Springboks. But what they did do was keep the Springboks to recording only three tries in the second half.
To my mind, given all the tribulations they were facing and the form and intent of the Springboks, this was a courageous result for the Wallabies. It showed that they are a team of character.
Early on in the second half, in fact, they took the game to the Springboks and only a mistake by Nick Phipps, the concession of a silly penalty by Polota-Nau and then the yellow carding of Slipper provided the context for the Springboks to score a driving try.
The Wallabies then made things more difficult for themselves by refusing to take kicks at goal which would have given them some needed points and kept them within a couple of scores of the Springboks.
Bryan Habana scored a fabulous try from a quick throw-in made by himself and then backing up to race away. This effort showed the intent of the Springboks. And the ability they have with their backs when they are allowed to play running rugby.
Robbie Deans saw some solace in the Test from the play of Kurtley Beale at flyhalf, “I thought Kurtley was outstanding… he was able to create some momentum for us on oaccasion.”
To my mind, this was a correct assessment. He also defended his channel well, which raises the issue of how well Cooper would have done under similar circumstances. My guess is that he would have gone missing on defence as he invariably does.
The All Blacks have won the inaugural Rugby Championship, as they did with the inaugural Tri Nations back in 1996. They play the Springboks at Soweto next weekend, a Test that will put a marker on where the Springboks are right now, especially.
Can they or will they continue with their running game against an All Blacks side that has improved, in my view, on the quality of the 2011 team which won the Rugby World Cup tournament?
Both the Wallabies and the Pumas, for their part, have to do the hardest thing in sport and that is to come back with a brave heart and strong spirits after being defeated handsomely. Character is formed and expressed in hard times rather than in easy ones.
Both teams need a win to save their seasons. The Pumas have the advantage, at least, of playing at home, although this proved to be no advantage against the All Blacks.
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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