South Africa 44-31 Australia, Tri-Nations, Pretoria, August 28
The Boks are back in the game
Graham Jenkins
August 28, 2010
South Africa's Francois Hougaard stretches the Australia defence, South Africa v Australia, Tri-Nations, Loftus Versfeld, South Africa, August 28, 2010
South Africa's Francois Hougaard claimed the Man of the Match honour at Loftus Versfeld © Getty Images

The Springboks answered their growing number of critics with a battling display at Loftus Versfeld that served as a brutal reminder that they are not a spent force.

The hosts may not have sparkled like the fleet-footed Wallabies but they showed the kind of guts that are an equally valuable asset for any would-be world-beater. When you are a proud rugby nation riding a four-game losing streak and seemingly stumbling towards an unprecedented Tri-Nations whitewash, the win, rather than the performance, normally takes precedence. Add in the not-so-insignificant handicap of a 14-0 deficit with just four minutes on the clock in a supposedly 'fortress' of a stadium and then winning ugly is an even more attractive proposition. But this is the Springboks - and rather than capitulating they summoned an epic performance to return to winning ways - just.

The game may have lacked the structure that would have kept the purists happy but as a contest it served as the latest visual feast that fans have been treated to in this year's Tri-Nations. A sport that was sadly lacking an X-factor just a few short months ago is now providing a rollercoaster of emotions every week. Not so long ago, officials were crying out for a more entertaining game - but should they be wary of what they wish for?

Any other side, bar perhaps the All Blacks, would have been blown away by the Wallabies' sensational opening stanza, but not the hosts who backed their own ability and stood toe-to-toe with their southern hemisphere rivals. This was supposedly a side shorn of confidence and although the form of some of their key players remains a concern their collective faith is unshakeable and they showed plenty of character.

They were some way second best on their Tri-Nations travels but a return to home soil and a much-needed break has given them a new lease of life. That resurgence hit an All Black-sized bump in the road last time out but that only temporarily knocked the stuffing out of Peter de Villiers' charges.

It may be strange to highlight defensive excellence on a day when the two sides leaked a total of 75 points but the Springboks' efforts to shackle the easy-on-the-eye Wallabies are worthy of note. Australia were at their free-running best at times at Loftus Versfeld most notably in the first half before the thin air inevitably took its toll on their various attacking threats. And it required a lung-busting defensive display to keep pace with the visitors need for speed. Man of the match Francois Hougaard led the way with an incredible work-rate that was best encapsulated by his try-saving tackle on Australia's Adam Ashley-Cooper in the second half that brought the crowd to its feet. It may not have been in the same category as that of a young George Gregan on flying All Blacks winger Jeff Wilson but it will go a long way to cementing the versatile 22-year-old's place on the elite stage.

But let's not get carried away. The Springboks' performance was still error-strewn with winger Bryan Habana's uncharacteristic gaff that handed the Wallabies' James O'Connor his second try the most glaring of shortcomings. Add to this the ease at which Australia's Kurtley Beale danced through the Boks' defence and a glut of other unforced errors and there is still plenty of food for thought for De Villiers. The Boks have also struggled to conjure the same kind of expansive game offered by the All Blacks and Wallabies in this year's Tri-Nations and although five tries offers some compelling evidence that they have regained a cutting edge - their fondness to move from set-piece to set-piece rather than throw caution to the wind may work against them in the long run. But there remains time to finesse that part of the game and this win grants them more of a cushion in that respect.

The result is just the latest frustrating reverse for the Wallabies and particularly coach Robbie Deans. Such is the bravado that his side display that you want them to be duly rewarded but this is top level sport and there is no room for such sentiment. The luxury of a multi-dimensional backline that can create opportunities and more importantly tries - on this occasion four - is no good unless you have the defensive stability to back it up. Perhaps a more conservative approach when leading 14-0 and then again 21-7 may have enabled the visitors to cement their lead but that is not how this generation of Wallabies play the game.

As irresistible some of the exchanges between Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, the dancing feet of Quade Cooper and the vision of Matt Giteau and the side's delightful propensity to give the ball some air in the shadow of their own posts it is unlikely to bring back the game's biggest prize next year. Cooper was unable to dominate in his first game back having served a suspension and he will no doubt kick on when the sides meet again in Bloemfontein in a week's time but his half back partner Will Genia looked more like the player who exploded onto the international stage last year. The smart money says they will be the one side to rival the All Blacks at next year's showpiece but they will be glad that there remains a year until we all decamp to New Zealand.

The Wallabies have not tasted success on the Highveld since 1963 and this was arguably their best opportunity to end that drought but they have another chance looming with another week of acclimatisation set to work in their favour. But facing them will be a Springboks side with a priceless victory to underline their natural confidence.

Let us not forget that these two sides are playing for runners-up spot in this year's Tri-Nations having been left in the wake of the All Blacks but that failed to reduce this latest clash to a mere sideshow. Both sides raised their game but remain some way short of the bar set by New Zealand and we can only hope they strive for further improvement next weekend.

Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.

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