It wasn’t pretty, but we will definitely take it. The Wallabies turned around a 0–6 halftime deficit to win 14–9 and record a second successive win in South Africa for the first time since 1963.
In the end it was a knock-down, drag-out contest between two sides with good reasons to be scratchy: one was coming off a hard-fought Bledisloe clash in NZ only a week before, the other having their first real hit-out for the season after an eight-week layoff. In the end it was the fitter, faster, stronger Wallabies who finished over the Boks like a good racehorse in the straight at Flemington.
How to analyse such a scrappy game? Do you criticise the Wallabies for another week of poor handling and headless chook play? Or praise them for a great forward display and a well-executed field position plan to close out the match? I probably side with the latter, but I am an eternal optimist in the world of Australian rugby.
I was particularly pleased by the performance of our forward pack. The scrum was outstanding. We held our own for the opening 50 minutes, then cut loose in the last half hour as the Boks tired and John Smit shifted to loosehead. Winning a penalty in front of the posts after walking the Boks back 10 metres warmed the cockles of my heart. As did winning a couple of lineouts from Matfield and Botha. Say what you will about general play, but God our set pieces look good.
Our defence was very solid but never truly tested. The Boks were pretty dire, and only had one decent crack at our line, which was quickly ended by a dropped ball by Victor Matfield. Nonetheless they had the best of the first half and should have had more than a 6-point advantage by the end of the stanza. Pierre Spies played his best-ever game against the Wallabies, and terrorised our defence on numerous occasions. By the second half, though, it was all one-way traffic and our accuracy and intensity increased dramatically at the tackle.
We let ourselves down with ball in hand, though. Too much dropped ball, too many loose passes and too much directionless play. It was no coincidence that the Wallabies’ prospects increased dramatically when they switched to a game plan based on field position and stopped playing the ball out of our own half. Too often we looked for the miracle offload instead of simply going to ground and securing possession. Will Genia overplayed his hand on many occasions… why has he started trying to throw Gregan-esque flick passes?
Our backline was solid without ever being brilliant. Quade Cooper bounced back from last week’s poor performance pretty well. His kicking and passing were very good, and he noticeably cut back the creative excesses of Eden Park — gone were the triple cut-out balls and the ambitious cross-kicks. I think the Wallabies were much better for it and they built pressure well. Digby and Kurtley were both industrious, and JOC set up McCabe’s try very well. Ant Faingaa was the real eye-catcher though, playing his best minutes in gold by a country mile. With Adam Ashley-Cooper once again quiet, a change may be in order for Brisbane.
In the end though, our best players were in the pack. Rocky Elsom answered his critics in great fashion, and James Horwill again confirmed he is one of the best locks kicking around. Steve Moore and Ben Alexander both had blinders, and David Pocock was also good. Nathan Sharpe added much needed go-forward and should keep his place. Scott Higginbotham wasn’t brilliant but showed enough flashes to justify his selection. The worst on field? To put it tactfully he wasn’t a Wallaby. Or a Springbok. We will leave it at that.
The homeward-bound Wallabies will be pretty happy, and rightfully so. You take a win in the Republic whenever and however you can get it, and now they have a couple of weeks at home to rest and wait for the All Blacks. Bled II promises to be a cracker.