The Springboks delivered yet another tactically superb performance in their 29-17 victory over Australia at Newlands.
With the hosts leading 23-10, the Test was effectively over at half-time – Australian ambition murdered by South African pragmatism.
The latter term has become synonymous with conservatism, but this was anything but conservative.
It was a slow death – executed through the venomous boots of scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and, especially, flyhalf Morne Steyn – not a fast-acting neuro-toxic poison that kills in seconds. It was beautiful in its simplicity.
The halfback duo launched the pill into the clear Cape sky, a committed chase exerted massive pressure on the receiver, a brutal breakdown contest buried him under a mound of green-clad bodies, and from the resultant penalty, Steyn, with his metronomic style, kicked the fight out of the visitors. The flyhalf would finish with a personal haul of 24 points to go with his 31 from last week, and seems to have entrenched himself in the side.
The little competitive spirit that hadn’t been systematically pounded out of the Wallabies was extracted when they lost skipper and talisman Stirling Mortlock to injury 10 minutes before half-time, then flyhalf extraordinaire Matt Giteau and flanker Richard Brown to the sin-bin six minutes thereafter. It was uncharacteristic of Giteau, who hit Du Preez early with a horrific tackle, but it was indicative of the Australians’ frustration at being so comprehensively outplayed.
The Wallabies were never going to adopt the cavalier style the All Blacks did in Durban as a primary means of attack, especially with component tactical kickers in their back three and at 9,10 and 12.
However, having the artillery to counter the Springboks, and the effective execution of that counter strike are two different things. The Springboks could probably replicate the pattern in their sleep. Australia, at this stage, can only dream of beating them by replicating the style they‘ve seemingly perfected.
When boxing with the champs didn’t work, they reverted to ninjutsu, spreading the ball wide. There they were met by Springbok defenders in no mood to allow them an inch. Every tackle made a statement, every statement said ‘not today’.
However, in terms of starts, it couldn’t have been much worse for the Springboks. The Wallabies set up a lineout in their 22, played straight off the top, showed good innovation with a midfield loop and sent the ball wide. The speed and clinical nature of the attack stretched the Springboks’ defence, and when JP Pietersen slipped off his attempted hit on Adam Ashley-Cooper the fullback simply had to corkscrew and score.
The Springboks soon settled though, and pulled 9-7 ahead through three Morne Steyn penalties. Errant and rudderless play by the Wallabies combined with a superb breakdown contest earned all three.
Berrick Barnes sunk a drop goal reduce the deficit, but Steyn maintained his flawless record when he banked another penalty and a drop goal to make it a five-point game.
With the Wallabies on the ropes the Springboks struck a decisive blow.
They rucked the ragged Aussies off the ball, sent it went wide to John Smit, who supplied one for the highlight reel by threading through a superb grubber. Lachie Turner made a mess of the retrieval and the ball spat loose to Victor Matfield, who capped a masterful performance with a try.
Steyn missed the conversion but kicked his fifth penalty to send the Springboks down the tunnel with a commanding 13-point lead.
Australia coach Robbie Deans, a tactically astute man, would have no doubt stressed the importance of discipline and ball retention through phases, as well as the conversion of chances when they came. But Deans’ side had neither the rugby intelligence or tactical appreciation to mount a rearguard through the collective.
They did, however, have a game breaker in Giteau, who ignited hopes of a comeback through solo brilliance. He took the ball flat off a attacking 5m scrum and sent the Springbok defence the wrong way with a devastating side-step before reaching over the whitewash to score. He converted, and with 14 minutes to go and a nine-point deficit (26-17) the Springboks needed to shake themselves out of the comfort zone they had slipped into.
Experience has taught them many valuable lessons, the most important one being composure under pressure and the ability to close out tight Tests. They regained focus and played the percentages, set up a comfortable buffer through yet another Steyn penalty, and shut out the Aussies.
The victory places them in an excellent position to win their first Tri-Nations title since 2004. The test of this side, so formidable at home, will now be whether they can replicate their form in unfamiliar surrounds and without 49 000 disciples fuelling their fire.
By Ryan Vrede, at Newlands