Wallabies back to their best in Brisbane
July 24, 2010
Australia's Matt Giteau proves elusive during the clash with South Africa in Brisbane © Getty Images
Australia issued a warning to their Tri-Nations rivals that they have no intention of just making up the numbers in the battle for southern hemisphere supremacy with a superb victory over South Africa in Brisbane.
The All Blacks have set the standard in recent weeks with back-to-back wins against the Springboks but it appears they are unlikely to get everything their own way. The Wallabies heaped woe on the beleaguered Boks to announce themselves as genuine title contenders and the All Blacks only have themselves to blame for the success of their Bledisloe foes. The Wallabies were obviously keen observers of the All Blacks victories in Auckland and Wellington and used the same blueprint to all but end the Springboks' hopes of defending their crown.
Robbie Deans' side produced a thrilling display of running rugby and conjured the same kind of energy-sapping tempo that served New Zealand so well at Eden Park and the Westpac Stadium. The Wallabies delighted with ball in hand and happily hammered away at the cracks exposed by the All Blacks and although they may have lacked the precision displayed by Graham Henry's side of late, they still had too much in the tank for a Springboks side that looked out on their feet both physically and mentally.
Knowing how to win is only part of the equation of course, so the Wallabies deserve ample praise for their application. Leading the way was centre Matt Giteau, who rediscovered the spark that has been sorely missing from his game this year to ignite the Wallabies into life. He had an able cohort in fly-half Quade Cooper, who had a quiet game by his standards but still showed some magic touches to keep the Boks guessing. But for once he had to operate in the shadow of some of his team-mates - thanks partly to a second half yellow card - with wing James O'Connor brushing off a couple of early blips to deliver a breath-taking individual performance courtesy of his dancing feet and electric pace. The ability of all three to off-load in the tackle is a joy to behold.
Worthy of equal praise is scrum-half Will Genia, who underlined his class with another lively display in the green and gold and was at his elusive and game-breaking best. But his ability to shine owed a great deal to the efforts of flanker David Pocock and Salesi Ma'afu, who inspired those around them with an incredible work-rate in defence. But perhaps it is another who deserves most credit - winger Drew Mitchell. Deemed surplus to requirements by Deans just a couple of weeks ago, he grabbed this opportunity with both hands and returned to top form with some sterling defensive work and devastating attacks with ball in hand.
Elsewhere, the outlook is bleak for the Springboks, who return home with no wins and no points and with the memory of four yellow cards and a couple of suspensions - and maybe another in the pipeline for centre Jacque Fourie - to add to the gloom. In addition, there is the on-going row following coach Peter de Villiers' latest outburst, but for many the main concern will be the team's shortcomings on the pitch - not off it.
For the second successive week the Springboks turned up with the intention to play and their early endeavour promised more than it eventually brought them. And despite all the positive talk this week about learning from mistakes, they once again orchestrated their own downfall with a shocking lack of discipline. They may continue to claim to be victims of the officials but their failure over the last three weeks to address any misinterpretation has not helped their cause. Repeated infringements not only robbed them of two key personnel in Fourie and prop BJ Botha but also gifted the Wallabies a more valuable advantage on the scoreboard.
Big name players continue to go absent in the heat of battle, while, as a side, they have been stripped of the confidence that helped elevate them to such great heights a year ago. Those defeats have also curbed their adventure with the team often putting boot to ball against the Wallabies despite success with the ball in hand. They are not lacking in guts or determination as their ability to battle back from adversity would testify - with flanker Ryan Kankowski a stand-out performer - but they will need to draw on those reserves in the coming weeks.
Bruised and battered, the Boks will be falling over each other to get on the plane back home. The next three weeks will arguably be the most important in De Villiers' time in charge and, as a result, he does not need to be spending time defending his own actions - but that is where he finds himself. He is under increasing pressure to revive his side and restore their confidence ahead of their home clashes with New Zealand (August 21) and Australia (August 7/28) and his success is that quest will go a long way to deciding not only his future but his side's chances of defending their Rugby World Cup crown next year.
Such was the apparent strength in depth at his disposal that you thought they could weather the loss of the likes of scrum-half Fourie du Preez, flanker Heinrich Brussow and hooker Bismarck du Plessis, but that does not now appear to be the case. The absence of Du Preez in particular has robbed the team of its heartbeat and direction.
In contrast, the Wallabies are peaking at the right time and their opening Bledisloe Cup clash with the All Blacks in Melbourne next weekend is shaping up as a classic should both sides bring their expansive best to the Docklands Stadium. The one cloud on the horizon may be a suspension coming the way of Cooper for his uncharacteristic indiscretion and his loss would be a cruel blow to a Wallabies side that appears to be on top of its game.
The southern hemisphere pecking order is suddenly not as clear-cut as it seemed a week ago, which bodes well for the rest of the competition.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.