Victor Matfield believes the Springboks did their country proud and isn’t quite sure how they ended up on the wrong side of the scoreline.
The Boks dominated territory and possession for much of Sunday’s quarter-final at the Cake Tin. Their lineout succeeded in disrupting the Wallabies’ set-piece, and their scrum also applied significant pressure.
Even when Wallabies No 14 James O’Connor slotted a penalty in the 72nd minute, the Boks still had the momentum as the clock wound down. Matfield admitted afterwards that he was at a loss to explain exactly where it all went wrong for South Africa, and why they are going home on Monday instead of preparing for a World Cup semi-final.
‘Considering the way we played, it was tough to lose like that,’ the Bok vice-captain said. ‘We always felt it was a matter of keeping the ball and getting into the right position. We felt that the [Wallabies' defensive] wall would eventually break. Unfortunately that moment never came.’
The Boks were guilty of a number of handling errors, and left several tries out on the park. But Matfield still believes the Boks had done enough to win a narrow contest.
‘Fourie du Preez came within half a metre of scoring and then there was the forward pass [to Pat Lambie]. So we did have our chances. We did everything to win the game but win the game. It’s heart-breaking.’
Bok forwards coach Gary Gold described the result as ‘devastating’ and said you could equate the feeling experienced by the players and management as that of the pain of death.
Referee Bryce Lawrence allowed both sets of players a lot of leeway at the breakdown, and while Gold said he would have to study the tape before making an accurate assessment of Lawrence’s performance, his initial feelings are that the referee let the Wallabies get away with far too much at the tackle.
‘We knew the role David Pocock would play and that he needed to be managed. Losing Heinrich Brussow [to injury in the first half] was massive for us. But Flo [Francois Louw] did well when he came on. We will have to look at it again, but my feeling watching it live, there was a big issue with the daylight at the breakdown.’
There had been a lot of criticism of the Boks’ pattern of play before this fixture, and while they did implement their kick-chase strategy successfully, they still ended the game without the desired result and without having scored any tries. Gold, however, believes they went into the match with the right game plan.
‘I don’t think we could have been better prepared. We struck a good balance, we were great defensively, we scrummed well, our lineout was good and so was our maul. We also had a good balance on the bench. We felt we did a lot well, so to lose is heart-wrenching.’
Like the other members of Team South Africa that fronted the media after the dramatic result, Gold was clearly very despondent. In spite of the loss, however, he suggested there were positives to be taken from this World Cup campaign.
‘The bit of solace we can take from this is that we have some unbelievable rugby players coming through. To single one out, Pat Lambie was sensational.’
On those older players that have represented the Boks for the last time, Gold said he hopes that South Africa gives them their due. John Smit and Victor Matfield have now retired from international rugby, while Danie Rossouw and Fourie du Preez will further their careers in Japan.
‘It will be a great injustice if they don’t receive recognition. They’ve done so much for the South African brand. When the emotion has died down a bit hopefully some of the senior players will be acknowledged for their contribution to the game,’ said Gold.
By Jon Cardinelli, in Wellington