In a week in which they returned to normal, non-bubble life and played in front of a crowd for the first time since the World Cup, the Springboks seemed to have stage-fright as they slid to a 28-26 defeat at the hands of the Wallabies on the Gold Coast on Sunday.
Flyhalf Quade Cooper, playing his first Test in four years, was the hero with a 100% kicking record of seven penalties and a conversion, including a long-range, angled penalty after the final hooter to snatch the victory.
But it was an unfocused performance by the world champions, who made basic mistakes and conceded too many penalties against a Wallabies side who were far from the weak pushovers they seemed to be against the All Blacks. They were crafty as ever in the scrums and avoided many of the physical battles by shifting the ball quickly away from the contact points.
Rolling maul tries
The lineout was the only area where the Springboks enjoyed a clear advantage, and all three of South Africa’s tries, scored by hookers Bongi Mbonambi in the first half and two by Malcolm Marx in the second, came from the rolling maul.
The visitors started well, using an aerial bombardment and their lineout prowess to win two penalties for flyhalf Handre Pollard, but the Wallabies began to find weaknesses in their defence as they came on strong at the breakdowns and the Springboks started to make soft mistakes to put themselves under pressure.
One minute after captain Siya Kolisi was yellow-carded for a tip-tackle, Australia took control of the game with the opening try. There was no danger involved in Kolisi’s tackle, but referee Luke Pearce was strict when it came to sending players to the cooler, dishing out four yellow-cards in all, two to each team.
The try came when Faf de Klerk rushed up in defence, but missed the tackle and excellent centre Samu Kerevi sidestepped him, creating space out wide which was quickly spotted by the Wallabies, wing Andrew Kellaway then cutting back inside to finish well.
The Springboks struck back with Mbonambi’s maul try after Australian lock Matt Philip had been yellow-carded for collapsing the drive, but Pollard had a poor night with the boot, missing three kicks either side of halftime.
Pollard knocked his second penalty of the second half over to close the gap to 14-19 as the Springboks came out energised after the break. But the Wallabies continued to play the smarter rugby and replacement scrumhalf Nic White’s brilliant kick, making use of the new 50/22 trial law, put them on attack.
From there, fullback Willie le Roux’s yellow card for a deliberate knock-on stalled the visitors’ momentum and cost three points as Cooper slotted his sixth successive kick at goal.
Fortunately, Australia hooker Folau Fainga’a was yellow-carded six minutes later for a no-arms tackle and the Springboks were able to maul Marx over for their second try, getting them to within one point.
And with eight minutes left Marx went over from the lineout drive again. But Damian Willemse, on for Pollard, pushed the conversion well wide to complete a miserable night from the tee for South Africa – 10 points in all being wasted.
There were a couple of crucial scrums towards the end in which the Springboks clearly dominated but were not rewarded by the referee, and then Australia wheeled the last scrum of the game, isolating replacement eighthman Jasper Wiese, who conceded the turnover penalty.
Cooper did exactly what he was brought in to do, showing the coolest of heads as he knocked the tricky penalty straight over.
Australia – Try: Andrew Kellaway. Conversion: Quade Cooper. Penalties: Cooper (7).
South Africa – Tries: Bongi Mbonambi, Malcolm Marx (2). Conversion: Handre Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (3).