Australia 21-6 South Africa, Tri-Nations, September 5
Wallabies stop the rot
September 5, 2009
Australia fullback James O'Connor is engulfed by his team-mates after scoring his side's second try against the Springboks © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Al Baxter Robbie Deans Jean de Villiers Fourie du Preez Jaque Fourie Will Genia Bryan Habana
Australia rediscovered their belief in emphatic style with a well-deserved victory over South Africa in front of a delirious home crowd at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.
Robbie Deans' side came into this clash under increasing pressure on the back of four successive defeats and time was running out for the coach and his talented yet under-performing squad. But instead of buckling under the weight of expectation, Deans' young stars finally came of age.
So often the subject of criticism from the media for their shortcomings and an inability to learn the lessons of defeat, this high-intensity performance will see the Wallabies making headlines for all the right reasons. Scrum-half Will Genia and flanker David Pocock were particularly impressive while the creative duo of Matt Giteau and Berrick Barnes were as industrious as ever. Centre Adam Ashley-Cooper and fullback James O'Connor may have grabbed the all-important tries but make no mistake - this was a superb team effort.
All the pre-game talk about the Springboks' date with destiny proved premature to the extreme. Unbeaten in this year's Tri-Nations ahead of this clash, they were aware victory would not only bring them the title for first since 2004 but would also take them to within reach of an unprecedented clean sweep of their southern hemisphere rivals.
But this was not the South Africa of late. Far from living up to the title of 'greatest ever Springboks' that some had already decreed, Peter de Villiers' side delivered a lacklustre display lacking the intensity the occasion required and that will have had All Blacks coach Graham Henry and his players rubbing their hands in anticipation of a battered and bruised touring team rocking up to Hamilton next weekend.
The Springboks have not looked this ordinary for a long time. Gone was the attacking fizz that as recent as last weekend in Perth had stood them apart from their rivals. And only a determined backs-to-the-wall defensive showing prevented the scoreboard causing even more concern. The champagne will have to go back on ice - maybe indefinitely. They posed with the Mandela Plate following them game - their reward for the two earlier victories over the Wallabies this year - but the expressions on their faces said it all. This wasn't the silverware they came here for.
It was clear to the eye that fatigue was a factor in the Springboks' downfall. An intensive 2009 has already brought them a series victory over the British & Irish Lions and to the brink of a rare Tri-Nations success but De Villiers' reliance on his big name stars to deliver the goods is in danger of de-railing their quest for glory in sight of the finish. With his side flagging in their latest encounter he was unable to conjure some fresh impetus from his bench.
A fast-paced and expansive game has for some time been pinpointed as the key to toppling this formidable South Africa side and the hosts commendably backed themselves with such an approach - despite the lack of a tangible reward for their previous attack-minded endeavours.
But with their visitors starting to show some warning signs after a taxing few months, the Wallabies sensed blood and doubled their own efforts. That impressive work-rate saw the hosts dominate possession and territory and amazingly kept the Springboks try-less at the Suncorp for the fourth successive match. The stadium remains a bogey ground for the Boks, having now lost on the six occasions they have visited.
In the likes of the ever-impressive Juan Smith and Fourie du Preez and equally outstanding Bryan Habana, the Springboks' cause is far from lost. But the lineout, so often the bedrock of the Boks' effort, surprisingly misfired, the scrum showed cracks previously unseen and there were errors where we would normally expect ruthless efficiency.
As a result, a side that boasted a mighty 624 international caps in their starting line-up and a further 209 on the bench were humbled by a fresh-faced Wallabies side intent on claiming their rivals' Rugby World Cup crown in 2011. With an average age of just 24 - skipper George Smith is the eldest in their ranks at 29 - this side finally have the big-match victory that should provide the confidence that will propel them to even greater things.
Such were the celebrations that you would have thought it was the Wallabies who came into this game with the southern hemisphere crown within their grasp. But that joy was more an expression of relief than anything else. They may have long since kissed goodbye to their own title aspirations but they will enter their final clash with the All Blacks with renewed confidence and could yet play a leading role in deciding the winner.
The clock is now working against the Springboks. Deflated and deterred, this is a huge week for De Villiers. His coaching prowess has been questioned in some quarters and he will now come under the microscope. He will no doubt relish the attention that will come his way in the coming days but it is how his side respond to this setback that will cement his reputation one way or the other.