JON CARDINELLI watched the Wallabies hang on for what could be the unlikeliest yet most significant victory at this 2011 World Cup.
Did the better team win? It’s a question the Springboks will be asking themselves from now and until the next global tournament in 2015.
South Africa controlled the game for large periods but were repeatedly undone by the Wallabies’ heroic defence. David Pocock was talked about as a danger man in the build up, and after a breakdown performance highlighted by some momentum stalling and often try-saving turnovers, he was undoubtedly the game’s MVP.
Much will be said about referee Bryce Lawrence’s performance with the whistle. Lawrence adopted an ‘anything goes’ policy at the rucks, but it was the Wallabies that adapted to the official’s style early on. The Wallabies dominated the collisions in the first half, and with Heinrich Brussow crying off with a rib injury, the Boks battled to combat Pocock’s inhibiting presence at the breakdown.
The Boks enjoyed as much as 84% territory and 55% possession in the first half, and yet only garnered a three point return. Their poor ball security at ruck time led to turnovers, as did their tendency to spill the ball in contact.
They upped their game in both respects in the second stanza, and it was all the Aussie could do to hang on. The subdue and conquer style so prominent and effective in 2009 once again held sway, and the Wallabies forwards struggled to resist the Boks when they cleaned out would-be ball poachers. They also battled to deal with the high ball, which was well chased by South Africa’s belligerent backs.
Quade Cooper had a shocker. After a dropping a high ball first up, he was often caught in possession and failed to provide the expected impact with the boot. A number of Wallabies grew increasingly susceptible as the game wore on, but the Boks just lacked that killer blow.
There’s no denying that the Boks had their chances. Jean de Villiers made a scything break in the second stanza and put Pat Lambie away for a try, only to be called back for a forward pass. Fourie du Preez thought he was in for a five-pointer when some good Bok defence dislodged the ball centimetres from the Aussie line. Unfortunately, the ball was again knocked free as Du Preez reached for the line.
Every Bok surge into Wallabies territory was succeeded by a desperate display of defence. The turnover followed, and the Aussies’ inability to clear their lines with any great distance ensured the game remained in the Wallabies’ half. The Boks’ lineout dominance also contributed to their territorial ascendancy, but in the end they will lament their inconsistent showing at the breakdown, as well as their poor finishing when it was on out wide.
After a frustrating period on attack, Morne Steyn finally put the Boks ahead 9-8 with a well-taken drop-goal. With 20 minutes to play, the momentum was with the Boks and if they continued to play in Wallabies territory and control possession, they would advance to the semi-finals.
But the introduction of Berrick Barnes had the desired effect for the Wallabies, and after a series of tactical kicking misfires by his team-mates, he delivered a rolling kick deep into the Boks’ 22. The Wallabies remained in the Boks’ half and eventually won a penalty, which James O’Connor held his nerve to convert.
It was a massive moment for the youngster, who had missed a relatively easy attempt in the first half. If he had missed, the chances were the Boks would regain possession, resume control and win the game. If he slotted it, it would set up a dramatic eight minutes where the Wallabies would need to continue to repel the rampant Bok forwards.
Through the Herculean efforts of Bismarck du Plessis and Schalk Burger, the Boks threw everything at the Aussies in those final minutes. They even managed to turn the Wallabies over, but unfortunately knocked it on just when they were moving back into the area of the field where Steyn would be able to kick for goal.
From there, the Wallabies closed out the game smartly. It will remain one of the great escapes for the Wallabies, but the Boks can hardly argue that they deserved to win this game. They didn’t take their opportunities, and on the day, the scoreboard will show that they were punished for that failure to convert dominance into points.