The Wallabies have beaten the Springboks at Subiaco Oval to open their account in The Rugby Championship for 2012. It was far from a vintage performance, but it was a massive step up from the ignominy of being blanked in Auckland.
Both teams came into the game under a cloud with a couple of fairly poor performances. The early exchanges in the game didn’t really improve things a great deal, it has to be said. The Wallabies seemed to adopt a tactic of kicking at nearly every opportunity. They grubber-kicked in behind the line. They kicked for the corner to give the Boks a lineout and they kicked down Zane Kirchner’s throat. The Boks were content to hang back and receive the ball, then return it with interest. A more pointless (not in the scoring sense) half of footy you’d be hard pressed to see. It’s fair to say that there was considerable unrest in the crowd by half-time!
In a sense it was understandable that the Wallabies were kicking as much as they did. They had next to no field position for almost all of the first half. The Boks were winning their lineout ball easily and putting the ball in the Wallaby 22 constantly. There are really only two ways to respond to that tactic: run the ball back or kick it to the opposition. The Wallabies elected to kick nearly every time.
The Boks were able to keep the score board ticking through pressuring at the breakdown and even scored a try by smashing the ball up around the fringes. With that said, they weren’t particularly threatening in attack. Morne Steyn’s days as Bok five-eighth must be numbered, especially with Johan Goosen and Patrick Lambie looking more threatening when they entered the fray later in the game. The ever-reliable boot of Berrick Barnes kept the Wallabies in touch and they went to the break 13-6 down. I got the feeling that if the Wallabies decided to hang on to the ball a bit more the points would eventually come.
The second half was a marked contrast to the first. There seemed to be much greater intent to keep the ball in hand and test the line. Quade Cooper stood flatter and took the line a lot more, making use of the fairly quick service he’d been getting from the pack and Will Genia most of the night. There was also a greater use of one his favourite plays: the short inside ball to Ioane coming in on an angle. He also tried it with a few of the ball runners in the pack. The tactic appeared to work too. The Wallaby forwards I thought consistently got over the gain line and recycled quickly. This also brought Genia into the game more with his trademarked sniping runs around the ruck base. Slowly but surely the tide turned and a lot of this had to do with not kicking away possession, especially avoiding the low percentage chip and grubber.
A key moment in the game came when Scott Higginbotham entered off the bench. Shortly thereafter, the Wallabies were on attack and he did what you want all big back-rowers to do: hit the line at pace on a great angle. It worked, with Higgers breaking through the defence and scoring next to the posts. This was probably the first time in the game you could feel that the Wallabies were getting on top.
The two sides exchanged a couple more penalties and the scores were even until more good lead up work from Higginbotham sent Ben Alexander crashing over in the corner. The work rate he showed in his time on the paddock is exactly why many (yours truly included) had been wanting him in the team for so long. His two games against the All Blacks were below par, but tonight’s performance was a step forward for him.
One of the things that I thought was noticeable was that the pack appeared to play a tighter formation tonight. In the tight-loose, they not only hit the gain line, but drove through it with numbers. Several times we saw the big bodies of Samo, Timani and Polota-Nau (who had a good game in the loose, I thought) getting the Bok defence shifting backwards and getting some real forward momentum. It happened a bit in the first half, but unfortunately the backs kicked the ball away too much for it to be an advantage. In the second half, however, the momentum built up from the pods of forwards driving the ball through the gain line started to bear fruit. Genia and Cooper were able to spread the ball with much greater ease and create more opportunities as a result. There needs to be a lot more of this kind of forward play in the coming weeks.
It should also be said that Michael Hooper had a terrific game and was involved constantly. He is developing into a very fine player indeed and tonight further enhanced his reputation. He got left a little bit isolated at times and gave away some penalties, but overall he did everything you would want an openside to do, and he has developed a bit of a running game to go with it.
The set pieces were mostly good, though there were a few wobbles as well. The lineout, a traditional area of strength for Australian rugby, wasn’t as secure as it should be and I’m not sure if it was the timing of the lifting/jumping or the throwing. It’s hard to tell in real time. The scrum had its ups and downs, as the Wallaby scrum often does, but did get stronger as the game went on. There were also a couple of hiccups at the restart.
As mentioned above, it wasn’t a performance for the ages and there are some technical areas to work on. The defence was, however, excellent for the most part. There were far fewer missed tackles than in previous weeks and several times the Boks were driven back in contact. That is very pleasing to see.
So not a fantastic performance, against an opposition who seem to be down on confidence, but an improvement over the New Zealand games. There is still some improvement to be made in attack, but there are at least some signs that if they can keep the ball in hand, there will be opportunities.
Finally, mention should be made of what looks like a mounting injury toll. Will Genia‘s knee injury looks serious and will test our depth at halfback. Barnes limped off too, though that may have been cramp. Beale and Timani were also reportedly replaced through injury.
FINAL SCORE: Wallabies 26 – Springboks 19
Tries: Higginbotham, Alexander
Cons: Barnes 2
Pens: Barnes 4
For South Africa:
Con: M Steyn
Pens: M Steyn 2, F Steyn 2
Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Dominic Shipperley, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia (c), 8 Radike Samo, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga’a, 17 James Slipper, 18 Scott Higginbotham, 19 Liam Gill, 20 Nick Phipps, 21 Mike Harris, 22 Anthony Fainga’a.
South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 Jean de Villiers (c), 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Francois Hougaard 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Juandre Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Pat Cilliers, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Francois Louw, 20 Johan Goosen, 21 Pat Lambie, 22 Lwazi Mvovo.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)