Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - For a team that had just won its first game in five starts in the Tri-Nations, the Springboks were in a subdued mood after their come from behind 44-31 win over Australia in Pretoria at the weekend.
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Indeed, you could probably say there was more honesty this time than there was after last week’s agonising defeat to the All Blacks at the FNB Stadium, where the coach and some players made statements that might have been construed as them thinking they had actually won the game rather than lost it.
Skipper John Smit said after the scrappy and low quality Loftus clash that it was not a performance that would win his men the World Cup, and he was right. He is also on the money when he says his men are not going to learn if they are on the right track when the defences are as weak as they were in this game.
They may have won, but it wasn’t a great performance from the Boks, and their mood may have reflected what many of the people present felt – namely that the team that lost might actually have been the better side on the day.
Certainly the Wallabies came a lot closer to breaking their 47 year drought on the Highveld than they have in recent memory. When they were up 14-0 after five minutes it looked dark for the Boks and also when they made it 21-7 a few minutes later.
The Wallabies should have been out of sight at half-time and the Boks should have felt thankful that the visitors were as poor on defence as they were. It was as if both teams caught some dreaded disease that prevented them from tackling as they walked out the Loftus tunnel before the game.
It was a team that didn’t know how to defend but was bloody-minded and determined to win against a side that didn’t know how to defend but also had no clue how to win. In the end, as it often does, bloodymindedness won the day. It was no more than that, and there was no significant step forward for either team in the buildup to next year’s World Cup.
That said, it wasn’t as if there were no positives for the Boks, and though it has become a time-worn old cliché, centre Jean de Villiers was right when afterwards he stated that the Bok comeback was a triumph for character.
You could say that the return of passion and pride in the jersey, ingredients that were alarmingly not in evidence overseas, was always going to happen once back in South Africa. After all, last week they played in front of a crowd of more than 90 000, and in both games there was the emotion which comes with celebrating the 100th game of a favourite and popular player.
But the Bok refusal to lose at Loftus on a day where the open spaces in the stands reflected the mood of the public towards their alarming fall from grace over the last 12 months did at least show that they are together as a team. And let’s not forget either that in the last three quarters of the match the Boks scored 37 points against just 10.
With the amount of attacking the Wallabies did in the second half, the Boks did well to prevent them from scoring – an indication that they settled their defence. Much of it was admittedly of the scrambling variety, and the Australians let themselves down with wrong option taking and rank poor decisions, but at least there was an improvement on the opening minutes.
Then there were the individual players who came through. None more so after an indifferent start than the man who was celebrating his landmark game, Victor Matfield, the organiser of a lineout that was back to its destructive best on opposition ball, and not least in the crucial last quarter of the game where Matfield himself soared high into the Pretoria sky to poach an Aussie throw-in just metres from the Bok line.
Francois Hougaard started with a poor kick and then repeated it a little later, but his man of the match award was about more than just the excellent tackle that dislodged the ball from Adam Ashley-Cooper’s grasp as the Australians were about to cross the line. The Boks would almost certainly have lost had that try been scored.
Morne Steyn is a lot steadier outside Hougaard than he was outside Ricky Januarie, and in this game he appeared to play closer to the gainline than he had previously, so making him, and the men around him, more dangerous with ball in hand. Given the way he kicked and played, it was a risky decision to replace him with Butch James 20 minutes from the end, though James did no wrong when he was on the field.
Jean de Villiers grew further in his second game back in his preferred position of inside centre, and his partnership with Jaque Fourie raised questions over why that selection was not made in the away leg.
Bryan Habana is clearly in the midst of a confidence crisis and Frans Steyn was rusty after his long lay-off – he would have been better had he been with the Boks overseas – but JP Pietersen, like Juan Smith, showed again what the Boks missed in his absence.