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The margins are so fine at the top level.
The Rugby Championship table will tell a story of one win in five games for Michael Cheika’s Wallabies, but it could so easily be four wins from five.
But for Bernard Foley’s wayward goal kicking in Dunedin, and the two matches against South Africa, the Wallabies would have been on a four-game win streak and rolling towards the culmination of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup decider in Brisbane.
As it is, it’s one win in five games and Micheal Cheika’s much talked about win ratio as Wallabies boss continues to sit at an uncomfortably low number.
But for those who watched last night’s game in Bloemfontein, they’ll have enjoyed a cracking game of running rugby and yet more evidence of Cheika’s belief that this squad is trending in the right direction.
Rugby is a funny game, now five games into a six-game tournament, we still don’t know if the Springboks are good or bad. After an arm wrestle with the Wallabies in Perth, they were comprehensively smashed in New Zealand before going blow-for-blow with what appeared to be an impressive Wallabies overnight.
The Wallabies defensive line just about held up to an early examination from the home side, albeit requiring some desperation defence out wide from Tevita Kuridrani, Bernard Foley and the outstanding Marika Koroibete.
And after weathering the early onslaught, the Wallabies struck first through Israel Folau, in-form fullback burst on to a neat, if not slightly forward inside ball from Bernard Foley to cap a superb set-piece play. Folau is having the best year of his rugby career since he first burst on to the scene in 2013.
The back-and-forth tone for the contest was established when the Boks hit back moments later. After successfully negotiating the rolling maul from the line out, the Wallabies were undone by simple phase play around the ruck, the quick recycle of ball exposing Australia’s poor spacing either side of the breakdown.
Since his horror night in Dunedin, Bernard Foley has been in rare form kicking for goal, and he needed to be last night, but his kicking from the hand remains a serious issue.
Foley could only find touch around the 22 metre line from a midfield penalty, which negated any chance of a driving maul. From his next opportunity he put the ball dead in-goal – an unforgivable yet somehow regular occurrence at international level.
On the occasion that Foley did find touch on the full with a kick, it was after the Wallabies had taken the ball back into the 22 and needed to keep the ball in play.
It’s incredible that the Wallabies’ skills coach, Mick Byrne is a former AFL Premiership winner, and yet general play kicking remains the weakest point of Foley’s game.
The officiating of last night’s game will have left both sides unhappy, as referee Ben O’Keefe was clearly exposed as being out of his depth in only his sixth Test match. The scrums were a complete lottery all night, regularly twisting, moving and collapsing leaving both sides at the mercy of the referee’s discretion.
O’Keefe also should have sin binned Israel Folau for tackling Dillyn Leyds by the hair, giving only a penalty for what is clearly a yellow-card offence under the current foul play guidelines.
The local television producer also shrewdly withheld the replay of Springboks’ captain Eben Etzebeth clobbering Folau in retaliation to avoid the referee or TMO seeing it before play restarted- so perhaps justice was done.
Up 13-10 at half-time the Wallabies had a terrific opportunity to lay down a marker in Bloemfontein, but a bad Kurtley Beale defensive miss had the Boks back in front after three minutes of the second half.
The Wallabies of recent times may have wilted at that moment, but fly-half Bernard Foley took it upon himself to lift the visitors.
This column has long insisted that Foley is one of the best runners at the line the Wallabies have, and is underused in that role. Foley has the ability to square up defenders and dragged the Wallabies back again, making a sharp line break before finding the chest of Koroibete with a crisp ball that sent the winger over for a sensational score.
The back-and-forth nature of the contest continued as the Springboks exposed some chaotic midfield defending from the Wallabies to hit back, before Foley again stepped up to fire a bullet pass into the path of the flying Koroibete – this time on the opposite sideline – to crash over for his second try.
At times it genuinely felt like Koroibete was playing on both wings for Australia. Kurtley Beale was named the official man of the match but for mine Koroibete, Foley and the tireless Michael Hooper, who dominated the tackle/breakdown area all night, were by far the best three players on the park.
There was time for both sides to win the game late on, Sean McMahon coughed up possession with the Wallabies in great field position, and the Springboks missed a late penalty attempt that would surely have stolen victory for the home side.
Despite once again not getting the result, Michael Cheika appeared amicable post-match, and he can justifiably feel that this Wallabies side is trending in the right direction, despite what the Rugby Championship table says.
If the Wallabies can go to Mendoza and win against the Pumas – by no means an easy task – they will take the field in Brisbane for the third Bledisloe with genuine belief that they can beat the All Blacks.