In the way that television broadcasters like to construct a narrative, anyone watching the lead-up to Stan Sport’s coverage of last night’s Rugby Championship Test between the Wallabies and Springboks would have been excused for thinking that this match was all about Quade Cooper.
In the end, it was.
Cooper might be a reluctant hero, stating after the game, “everybody seems more excited about it than I am”, but his 42-metre kick on the siren to lift the Wallabies to a narrow but deserved 28-26 win was entirely in keeping with the composed, accurate nature of his 80-minute performance.
At 33 years old, Cooper has found the sweet spot in his life, where what it means to be a high-performance athlete, life goals and personal values harmoniously intertwine. Cooper’s legs may have been tired, and the final penalty attempt a testing kick, but in such a zen moment, it was never going anywhere but through the middle of the posts.
All Cooper needs now to square things off is an Australian passport – famously denied him in recent times. After this performance it will be astounding if Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton doesn’t frank Cooper’s citizenship papers and deliver them to the Wallabies’ hotel in person.
Springboks’ skipper Siya Kolisi insisted before the match that no matter what the Wallabies might bring, the Springboks would stick to the game plan that has served them so well so far in 2020.
He wasn’t lying. The aerial bombardment started early. Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux all loaded up with contestable kicks that the Wallabies – despite knowing what was coming – struggled to come to terms with.
The Wallabies kicked too, albeit as one part of a more varied game plan, acknowledging the match situation but not conceding terms to the Boks.
An early exchange of penalties saw the sides level at 6-6, when Kolisi was shown a yellow card for a tip tackle on Tom Banks. After failing to score points when playing a man up against New Zealand, the Wallabies this time made things count, with Samu Kerevi – a handful all night – beating the rush from Faf de Klerk to send Andrew Kellaway in on a nice angled run.
Needing to up the ante, the Springboks applied intense lineout pressure, with Matt Philip also shown a yellow card before Bongi Mbonambi scored at the third attempt in the 28th minute.
The Wallabies stuck to their game plan, however, and playing at the right end of the field, two Cooper penalties had them up 19-11 at the break; fair value for what was easily Australia’s best 40 minutes of the season.
This brought a halftime dilemma for the Springboks. At eight points down, would it be more of the same, or a change of tactic, needing to chase points?
The answer came quickly. More kicks rained down and a Pollard penalty edged things back to 19-14.
The Wallabies should have restored their eight-point lead straightaway but a kickable penalty was reversed due to Lachie Swinton leading with his shoulder in a tackle. No surprises there.
Kerevi came to the rescue, delivering more front-foot ball, which allowed Nic White the space and time to record the first 50-22 kick in Test rugby.
The resulting field position was important, Le Roux becoming the third player binned, this time for a deliberate, one-armed knock-on. Commentators and no doubt hordes of fans cried foul, stubbornly repeating the line that ‘if he catches it he scores at the other end’, but referee Luke Pearce explained matters perfectly.
Referees consider defenders using two hands to try to catch the ball as a genuine attempt. Players are free to stick out one arm and roll the dice if they choose to do so. But if they don’t happen to make a clean catch, they leave themselves at the mercy of the officials.
In the 58th minute Pollard finally got reward from his cross-field bombing assault. A chaos ball ricocheted backwards off Makazole Mapimpi’s shoulder, allowing the visitors to mount pressure on the Wallabies’ line.
It was here that Folau Fainga’a was also sat down for a grass-cutting, no-arms tackle. With the hooker sailing close to the wind all half, there could be no argument, and there was a sense of dread around the Wallabies’ whole-hearted effort faltering as a result of needless ill-discipline.
Malcolm Marx scored easily from the lineout drive, and despite Cooper nudging the lead back out to 25-21, the Boks returned to the red zone for Marx to repeat the dose in the 72nd minute.
By now, the Wallabies had been penalised three times for an early shove in the lineout, although I wonder if more attention shouldn’t have been paid to the Springboks’ lifters holding their jumper up off the ground as a tactic to draw the penalty.
Ahead 26-25, it felt like the Springboks had timed their run perfectly, although a late breakout led to captain Michael Hooper running into the clear. A try looked on but Hooper’s final pass for Reece Hodge was brilliantly read by Damian Willemse.
The final chance for Wallabies looked to have come in the 78th minute but a poor option from Hodge, hoisting an aimless midfield bomb instead of punching into enemy territory, looked to have allowed the Springboks to run the clock down for the victory.
Except it turned out to be the second-last chance.
A huge final scrum splintered the Boks, White had the presence of mind to compete for the ball on the deck, and the remarkable Quade Cooper comeback was complete.
If the single word to capture Cooper’s performance was composure, the same applied across the whole team. As I suggested last week, the more structured style of game of the Springboks suits the Wallabies at this stage of their development, almost ensuring – even if it is against their natural instinct – that they don’t get drawn into a game above their skill station.
This was also a factor in the Wallabies taking points on offer. Cooper kicked 21 points from penalties that this team last year would have tried to turn into tries from lineouts.
James O’Connor excitedly announced to viewers before the match that he would be back next week; we knew what he meant, but by match end even he would happily concede that it if it happens, it will only be from the bench.
South Africa will definitely be back next week. Don’t expect any radical shift in approach – a last-minute loss is no reason to panic, but they will be looking for far more urgency and zip in their play.
Oh, and if somebody can convince Handre Pollard that he’s easily a good enough player to play closer to the line, that will also help them no end to apply some pressure on the Wallabies’ defensive structure.
English referee Luke Pearce was a breath of fresh air, making a conscious effort to keep play moving, and while he wasn’t afraid to go to his TMO on a regular basis, he ensured that the process was fast, and the communication was clear. A lesson here for Australian and New Zealand officials.
In the curtain-raiser, the All Blacks enjoyed overwhelming possession and territory advantage throughout the first half, yet five minutes prior to halftime had little to show for it. Tenacious defence and the pitch being a fraction too small for Jordie Barrett kept the margin to ten points.
Two late tries reset the scoreboard at 22-0, took the Pumas out of the game, and set up a dominant 39-0 victory; the second successive shut out, or ‘nilling’ as the young ones like to call it these days.
The match lit up in the 46th minute, after TJ Perenara recognised space on left, Rieko Ioane gassed into the Pumas’ half, and Beauden Barrett pulled one of his best party tricks out of the back of his hand for the excellent Luke Jacobson to score a thrilling try.
A 29-0 lead allowed coach Ian Foster to get plenty of game time into his bench players. If the Pumas had seen enough of Asafo Aumua hurling into them in the first half, Samisoni Taukei’aho was an unwelcome double act.
The All Blacks will be disappointed with four scrum penalties conceded, but otherwise delighted with what was a disciplined and dominant performance from their pack.
Some New Zealand fans, forever seeking perfection, might carp at five tries being insufficient return for the possession and territory dominance, but it was pleasing to see the All Blacks retain their shape, and not get tangled up out wide behind the advantage line, or let the play get scrappy.
The Pumas looked underdone in South Africa and were expected to improve, however, while the scoreboard made for unhappy reading, the Pumas weren’t so much poor as they were simply shut out of the match right from the start, and were never allowed in.
One interesting side note to arise from this match was the halftime interview with Wallabies’ reserve prop James Slipper, who fielded questions about what he thought of the All Blacks and Pumas match, a mere two hours before going into battle against the World Cup champions.
Strange, perhaps, that the Wallabies would even be watching. But then again, if someone had told me a few weeks ago that Quade Cooper would be back running the cutter for the Wallabies and winning Test matches against the Springboks, I would have told them they were dreaming.