The Wallabies have staved off a rampaging South African outfit in the dying stages of a gripping encounter in Brisbane to chalk up a 23-18 victory and snap a four-game losing streak in a pressure-relieving result.
A double knock-on prevented Francois Louw from scoring a match-winner for the Springboks in the 78th minute before some dogged defence and solid scrummaging helped Australia clinch just their second win of 2018 after a tryless second half. The elation on the players' faces said it all.
Winners are grinners: Will Genia and the Wallabies celebrate at full-time at Suncorp Stadium.
“It was a really good game back and forth,” said Wallabies captain Michael Hooper. “I’m really proud of our guys to stick in with the fight and show the resilience we have over the last couple of weeks.”
After two heavy defeats to the All Blacks and widespread public criticism, this latest result wasn’t clinical or pretty at times but it will ease the blowtorch on coach Michael Cheika and questions over his position.
After two weeks of soul searching and all the usual “honest chats” among players and coaching staff, the Wallabies certainly didn’t embarrass themselves in front of 27,849 fans who left Suncorp Stadium knowing the men in gold had given a far better account of themselves.
The previous five Australia and South Africa Tests had been decided by eight points or fewer, with both matches last year ending in draws.
Neither side could streak away from the other in what was a tight tussle even if it wasn’t the most polished Test in recent times.
It looked like a third consecutive draw between the two sides was on the cards before Bernard Foley took an intercept and Will Genia booted the ball deep into the stands to bring an end to an extremely physical Test.
However, Australia shot themselves in the foot repeatedly in a number of different areas and no more so than when Folau Faingaa threw two wonky lineouts in the space of a minute – late in the second half – when the Wallabies were camped in South African territory, desperate to pull off a set-piece move.
The Kurtley Beale and Matt Toomua No.10-No.12 combination lacked spark to begin with and even the former acknowledged just as much at half-time. As the game progressed, Toomua found his groove and was named man of the match in his first Wallabies start since June 2016.
Sight to behold: Michael Cheika enjoys a laugh after an intense period of pressure on the coach.
In the 36 hours to kick-off the Wallabies omitted David Pocock, Israel Folau and Adam Coleman from the team sheet. While they were easy positions to cover, it was hardly an ideal preparation for a Test with so much riding on it.
“This is a chance for players here to stand up in a bit of adversity,” said Cheika at half-time with his side trailing 18-17. “And show how much it means to play for their country.”
The early signs were favourable for the home side. Toomua got an early touch at first receiver and after a dash down the right edge from Lukhan Tui, Hooper dived over following some clever pick-and-drives.
Break: Will Genia was one of the Wallabies’ best.
One-hundred seconds in and the Wallabies were ahead. In terms of nerve-settlers, it was exactly what they needed.
That lead was short-lived when Elton Jantjies kicked a penalty before the Springboks perfectly executed a rolling maul, finished off by new starting hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
A 6-1 penalty count midway through the first half against the Wallabies deprived them of territory and possession and this was compounded by elementary basic handling errors.
Body language was poor and confidence low. Oh how badly Australia missed Pocock’s ability to poach a turnover when they were under the pump on their own line.
South Africa’s decision to start Mbonambi proved regrettable after one of the biggest overthrown lineouts you will see. The ball bounced up into Toomua’s bread basket and he happily dived over for his fifth Test try in the 33rd minute.
One thing that was concerning for the Wallabies was Tatafu Polota-Nau being hooked after just 32 minutes. He looked exhausted and one has to question whether he should have even played after a long-haul flight from the UK early this week.
A 53-metre penalty to Reece Hodge, which cleared the black dot with ease, put Australia just one point behind at the break after a half characterised by a lack of continuity.
Replacement prop Taniela Tupou got his chance in the 47th minute, while Foley came on with 20 minutes to go in a back-line reshuffle that saw Toomua move to inside-centre and Beale to fullback.
Tupou helped the Wallabies scrum win a crucial penalty in the 69th minute, which saw Toomua extend the lead to five points.
With starting tighthead Allan Alaalatoa below his best, there is an irresistible case for Tupou to start against the Pumas next week, providing he is alright after clutching at his neck late in the match.
After two weeks of negative headlines, the Wallabies can enjoy a Sunday for a change. Oh, what a win can do.
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