Beale's kick in the teeth
September 5, 2010
Adam Ashley-Cooper leads the celebrations following Kurtley Beale's winning kick © Getty Images
Australia may have turned the corner. They should have cruised to victory over South Africa in Bloemfontein on Saturday, but due to their youthful exuberance and fragile grasp of the psychological warfare of Test rugby they scraped across the finishing line thanks to the boot of a part-time kicker.
Kurtley Beale's 55-metre shot-to-nothing secured a 41-39 victory that can be filed away with other classic Tri-Nations matches, nestled neatly alongside John Eales' Wellington heroics in 2000. The kick turned a damaging defeat, the Wallabies were 31-13 up at the break and trailed 39-38 in the 80th minute, into a historic victory.
Australian rugby had two fat monkeys on its back at kick-off, but now only one remains. Their high veldt struggle is over, this being their first win at altitude since 1963, and next up are the All Blacks in Sydney - their white whale after nine straight defeats to their Trans-Tasman rivals.
The Wallabies' opening burst in Bloemfontein was simply breathtaking, not only for their guile and skill with ball in hand but also for the staggering ineptitude of the Springbok defence. As defenders in green shirts ran into each other in a panic, Robbie Deans' men conjured tries of genuine quality, with Beale's opener highlighting their passing game and also their excellent ability to keep the ball alive.
While they are some way from producing a complete performance, it's hard to imagine New Zealand retreating into their shells and allowing a Springbok comeback, their attacking prowess is streets ahead of the vast majority of sides in world rugby. Quade Cooper, Matt Giteau, James O'Connor and Beale are fearless footballers, capable of magic with ball in hand.
"You miss 100% of the shots you never take" was the maxim preached by NHL legend Wayne Gretzky and Deans' side are apparently avid followers. There are glaring deficiencies in their scrum and they continue to lack genuine thrust from No.8 but they now know that they can hurt any side put in front of them. A solid set-piece and a sprinkling of maturity, the injured Tatafu Polota-Nau, Wycliff Palu, Ben Alexander and James Horwill should provide both on their return, will leave them a fairly potent outfit in World Cup year, especially given the relative weakness of the northern hemisphere.
Had Beale's penalty slid past the post then we would be toasting a second superb Springbok comeback in recent weeks. As Wales learned to their detriment during the Six Nations though, you don't win many Test matches from 20 points down. Even the most ardent Springbok fan will have to admit that their side deserve the wooden spoon this season.
They have shipped a record 22 tries, been comprehensively outplayed by New Zealand home and away and seem to have lost any semblance of organisation in their defensive structures. Peter De Villiers has long been a wanted man in many corners of the South African rugby community and his side's slide this season from top to bottom in the Tri-Nations has given them all the ammunition they need.
His assistants, Dick Muir and Gary Gold, are often shielded from the limelight by their superior's wild flights of fancy with the media, but they too must take a portion of the blame. Whether or not, with their Rugby World Cup defence now a year away, the South African Rugby Union has the resolve, or stupidity depending on your worldview, to sack their coaching panel remains to be seen.
The loss of Fourie du Preez to injury has been colossal, but even the Bulls' genius scrum-half cannot be cited as the sole reason for the team's regression. They have shown, on the home leg of their tournament, that they possess plenty of pride and grit, but that has not been allied to quality in 2010. The Wallabies and All Blacks have at times shown dazzling continuity in their play, depriving the Springboks of their beloved set-pieces, and there is clearly no Plan B for De Villiers and Co.
The return of certain players, namely the vital Juan Smith, and clarity in the selection of Francois Hougaard at scrum-half did provide a lift in performance but the facts are there in black and white. South Africa are rock bottom in the southern hemisphere a year out from the World Cup. A grand slam tour awaits in November, a feat they have not completed since 1961, and failure to produce the goods will be a further hammer blow. Even at this juncture, the Boks should have too much for the Home Unions - their fans will demand it - so the pressure will not be escaped once they board their flight.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.