Boks must confront defensive frailties after Beale foils epic fightback
South Africa 39
When the dust had settled on one of the greatest Test matches the old game had ever seen, some pertinent questions needed to be asked.
Not whether there was still any spirit left in this defeated Springbok squad that has finished bottom of the Tri Nations table. That one was answered in bucket-loads as the Boks turned around a ruinous 31-6 deficit to lead 36-31 with minutes left.
Only personal pride and a deep well of belief would drag a team out of that particular pit into a position to win a game. That they failed to seal the deal, when they were still in front, had possession and were less than 40 seconds from the final whistle, shattered the South Africans.
It was a tragedy for John Smit and his men that they couldn't finish off one of the bravest, most courageous comebacks in the history of Test match rugby. Thank substitute lock Flip van der Merwe for that, because his late indiscretion handed Australia a chance of glory in injury-time. Kurtley Beale seized it with alacrity, sending a 55-metre penalty soaring between the posts for Australia's first win at altitude in 47 years.
It was a game of 80 points in 80 minutes, eight tries in all and rich in vivid, flowing continuity. This truly is the new rugby.
But the Wallabies had seen their huge first-half lead gradually eroded as South Africa got on top up front, where Victor Matfield, Gurthro Steenkamp and Juan Smith were exceptional.
At 36-31, however, Drew Mitchell spotted another South African defensive gap and scored by the posts. James O'Connor, who had scored two tries himself in the first 24 minutes, converted for a 38-36 lead.
That became 39-38 to South Africa with Morne Steyn's sixth penalty goal five minutes from the end. But Beale's audacious late kick won it.
Smit admitted: "It is hard to talk after that finish. We made a bad start but made a great comeback, so to lose like that is very disappointing. It's been a poor Tri Nations for us and we have a lot of work to do."
But for all the eulogies regarding South Africa's comeback, there have to be boards of inquiry set up to understand what the hell happened in the first 24 minutes when they fell 25 points behind. Nor, of course, was this a one-off -- Australia led 21-7 after 11 minutes in Pretoria the previous week.
Defence, and the necessary structure and pattern around which it is based, were the cornerstone of South Africa's triumph at the 2007 World Cup where they conceded just nine tries in seven matches. But the Springboks have now conceded 22 tries in their six games in this year's Tri Nations, exactly double last year's tally.
They don't operate as a unit, don't appear to have a clue how to shut down space and isolate the oncoming ball-carrier and they continue to miss important tackles.
It is always hard to be critical after such a magnificent game of rugby and so wondrous a comeback.
Entertaining rugby of the kind we have seen in this year's Tri Nations is all well and good and undoubtedly, many tries have been conceived and finished by class attacking play. Sometimes you just have to put up your hands and acknowledge that.
It was a great game to watch on Saturday but South Africa cannot go on like this. For, at the end of the day, despite their heroics these last two weeks, they have finished bottom of the table.
But will anyone be asking the hard questions as to why?
South Africa -- F Steyn; JP Pietersen, J Fourie, J De Villiers, B Habana (G Aplon 50); M Steyn, F Hougaard; G Steenkamp, J Smit (capt) (C Ralepelle 65), J Du Plessis (CJ van der Linde 54), D Rossouw (F Van der Merwe 60), V Matfield, S Burger, J Smith, P Spies (R.Kankowski 65).
Australia -- K Beale; J O'Connor, A Ashley-Cooper, M Giteau (B Barnes 67), D Mitchell (A Faingaa 73); Q Cooper, W Genia (L. Burgess 54); B Robinson, S Moore (S Faingaa 65), S Ma'afu (J Slipper 20), M Chisholm (D Mumm 53), N Sharpe, R Elsom (capt), D Pocock, B McCalman (R. Brown 69), (S. Moore 78) (S Faingaa for S Moore 79).
Ref -- W. Barnes (England).