|7 July 2007 (Posted: 11:36)
By Dan Retief -- SuperSport Zone
The Springboks squandered a 17-0 lead to go down, 25-17, to the Wallabies in their Vodacom Tri-Nations rugby test played at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney on Saturday.
In a stadium pock-marked with empty seats there was an air of expectation and celebration as first George Gregan, making his final test match appearance in Sydney, and then Stephen Larkham, earning his 100th cap, were afforded the honour of running out on their own as a fireworks display spelt the word “Farewell.”
But a hush soon settled on proceedings as the pyrotechnics came from the Springboks.
Hougaard brushed the left-hand upright with a penalty but then the Boks took the Wallabies by surprise by moving the ball wide off a scrum - thanks to Bob Skinstad spinning the ball straight to the backs to set in motion a movement that resulted in Wikus van Heerden barging over under the posts.
Waylon Murray had run strongly to pull the Wallabies out of shape down their right flank and when the ball was mauled back infield Gary Botha drove strongly to set up the maul that allowed Van Heerden to peel off and score.
Hougaard’s conversion gave the Boks a dream start (7-0) that was about to get even better.
The Wallabies kicked off and, as they had done with the opening kick, won the ball back and attacked to the left. A week ago against the All Blacks lock Nathan Sharpe had thrown a sublime pass that put Adam Ashley-Cooper in for a try but this time he was left aghast as a blur of green flashed up, in the shape of Breyton Paulse, to intercept the ball and sprint away to score.
14-0 after seven minutes was almost too good to be true and when a Hougaard penalty made it 17-0 it seemed the roundly denigrated Boks were well set to rub the Aussies’ noses in it.
Sadly, however, that was to be their lot for the night. Hougaard missed a crucial penalty from 45 metres that could have advanced the lead to 20 points but the chemistry of the game had changed – the Wallabies were winning the ball and recycling it; the Boks were back-peddling and tackling.
It was also at about this point that the first signs of skipper Bob Skinstad’s dissatisfaction with referee Paul Honiss began to be apparent – the referee playing a role or, perhaps, failing to play a role when Mark Gerrard scored the Wallabies’ first try.
A penalty to touch and a ball won by Dan Vickerman resulted in the Wallabies executing a clever move that worked perfectly for them but smacked of obstruction to the Boks.
George Gregan ran wide off the lineout, danger man Stirling Mortlock came cutting back, the Bok defenders bunched to stop him, and blindside wing Gerrrard looped around the back and burst through untouched in the gap caused by Mortlock’s decoy run.
It was an excellently worked tactic to exploit the threat of Mortlock but the fact that a number of Wallabies made contact with the Boks in front of the ball looked suspiciously like what was called obstruction in the Super 14.
The Boks appealed to the referee – something which they should probably try to eliminate – but it did not change the fact that the Wallabies were on the board and starting to call the shots.
Honiss has become something of a nemesis for the Springboks but the official could not be blamed for the absence of strong first-up tackles, losing the ball in the tackle, turning it over in rucks and a general state of lethargy that seemed to come over the Boks.
A penalty by Mortlock made it 10-17 at the break but any thoughts that some inspirational re-grouping might take place in the dressing room evaporated almost as soon as the match re-started.
JP Pietersen lost a ball he had leapt to claim as he hit the wall of tacklers; Mortlock sent through a scudding kick and then managed to side-foot the ball back into play ahead of the covering Paulse before Bevin Fortuin managed to get it into touch.
It was a bridgehead won though and from a cleanly-won lineout the Wallabies switched the ball wide to the right and then brought it back in classis style to send Stephen Hoiles pounding over after Albert van den Berg (who had replaced Johan Ackermann as early as the 29th minute) had rushed up out of the line and missed the tackle.
Mortlock’s conversion made it even-stevens (17-all) as the Springboks started to look like, well, a B team.
The Boks were clearly non-plussed by the referee’s bias at the breakdown and when Skinstad was pinned for holding on Mortlock stepped up to give his side the lead for the first time in the game – 20-17 in the 51st minute.
The Boks were at sixes and sevens though in trying to cope with the deception, in pass as well as angle, of the Wallaby backline and, staggeringly, seemed seriously out of puff.
They were a rattled and struggling to hang on and the referee’s next decisive action not only put paid to any chance they might have had but spoke volumes of how tattered they had become.
Botha drove the ball up and laid it back – only to be yellow-carded for kicking the ball away while still lying on the ground as hordes of Wallabies swooped on it. To be frank it should have been a collective card to the posse of forwards who were absent and left the hooker utterly exposed and the Boks were down to 14 men when they could least afford it.
That was in the 52nd minute. In the 53rd minute Matt Giteau scored the try that ensured that the Wallabies would give Gregan and Larkham a winning farewell in Sydney while also sending them to the top of the Tri-Nations log.
Attacking the blindside Gerrard was put away on the touchline and when he was hemmed in the wing put in a deft grubber which was snapped up by Giteau to score.
Mortlock missed his first kick of the night but at 25-17 you could see no way back for the Boks. There was also to be no way further forward for the Wallabies in their quest for the bonus point.
Bismarck du Plessis earned a bizarre debut as he tried to get on for the departed Botha, only to be told by Honiss that he would have to wait for a scrum and not a lineout throw, before going on two minutes later just before Skinstad cried off with a broken rib and Botha returned in the company of Jacques Cronje.
There was time left for Johan Muller to earn the Boks’ second yellow card – after being fingered for a punch spotted by TJ Steve Walsh that left him looking astounded – and Peter Grant to earn his first cap when he replaced Hougaard but even though the Boks ended off by attacking strongly from their own line there was to be no triumphant run up the steps of City Hall by these B-grade contenders.
Australia - Tries: Mark Gerrard, Stephen Hoiles, Matt Giteu.. Conversions: Stirling Mortlock (2). Penalties: Mortlock (2).
South Africa - Tries: Wikus van Heerden, Breyton Paulse. Conversions: Derick Hougaard (2). Penalty: Hougaard.