Springboks’ reality check as Wallabies beat them at their own game
Critics of the SA style of rugby suddenly have something to crow about
Melbourne — Winning has been SA’s most effective riposte to accusations of playing a boring brand of rugby but that defence was taken away on Sunday by an Australian team with a similar game plan.
After two easy wins over Argentina, the world champions were stunned 28-26 by the Wallabies at Gold Coast despite welcoming back reinforcements in No 8 Duane Vermeulen and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk from injury.
Apart from the personnel changes, the Springboks brains trust had seen little need to depart from the trusted formula of power and set-piece dominance that underpinned their 2-1 series victory over the British & Irish Lions. They may be thinking differently now after the Wallabies unlocked their no-frills game with a similar determination not to run the ball.
True to form, the Springboks scored all three of their tries from lineout drives while never really threatening to create one through backline inspiration. The Wallabies needed a single try — and 23 points off the tee from recalled flyhalf Quade Cooper — to bring the Boks back to earth.
All Blacks staff were unable to watch the game as they hastened to leave Robina Stadium after their 39-0 win over Argentina in the first match of the Test double-header. But they will no doubt take interest in the Wallabies’ blueprint for victory when they sit down to watch the video ahead of back-to-back matches against the Springboks.
SA coach Jacques Nienaber will hope to have attacking weapon Cheslin Kolbe back after he injured his leg in training last week. They will also look to flyhalf Handré Pollard to kick straighter in the Australia rematch in Brisbane on Saturday after he left valuable points on the field at Gold Coast.
That may be enough to fend off another siege from the dogged Wallabies but might not be sufficient to stop the rampaging All Blacks in their tracks in two weeks’ time.
At the same time Cooper’s match-winning return to Test rugby has given the Wallabies staff a nice headache as they plot to avoid a backlash from the Boks on Saturday. Coach Dave Rennie’s shock recall of Cooper for his first Test in four years proved a masterstroke as the New Zealand-born playmaker steered the Wallabies with composure through the heat of the Springboks’ rush defence.
“Based on form it was hard to leave him out. I thought he was massive tonight,” Rennie said after the win. “He was able to implement under pressure against the world champions.”
With young flyhalf Noah Lolesio having struggled throughout the All Blacks’ whitewash and James O’Connor lacking match fitness, Rennie may find it hard not to retain Cooper in the No 10 jersey for the rematch in Brisbane. Latching on to the 33-year-old Cooper as a long-term prospect in the No 10 jersey may be a riskier play, however.
Many pundits have urged Rennie to keep faith in the still raw Lolesio, despite question marks over his decision-making under pressure.
Asked whether Cooper might have a chance of wearing a gold jersey at the 2023 World Cup in France, Rennie was unequivocal. “He would be a young fellow if he was in a Springbok team,” Rennie quipped. “Of course he could. We’re not thinking too far ahead at this stage and neither is he.
“I know he’s keen and available for the rest of the year and we’ll make a call beyond that.”
Sunday’s win was just Australia’s fourth from 13 Tests since Rennie took over the side in 2020, though there have been three draws among the six defeats. Knowing they can beat the world champions will do wonders for the confidence of Rennie’s rebuilding team, though they can expect a chastened SA to improve in Brisbane.
“I think we’ve got a lot more in us,” said Rennie. “What we know next week is it’s going to be another level.”
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