A painful Tri-Nations campaign for South Africa continued on Saturday at Kings Park in Durban as they surrendered a six-point halftime lead to lose 14-9 to Australia.
It was the third southern-hemisphere championship reverse on the trot for the Springboks, and while heavy losses in Australia and New Zealand were blamed on leaving 21 mainly senior stars at home, many returned to action for this match.
South Africa deservedly built a six-point halftime advantage, but could not maintain the momentum and lost some crucial breakdowns while their scrum came under pressure as the game progressed.
The Springboks have one more Test — versus the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth on Saturday — before launching their World Cup title defense against Wales in Wellington next month.
“This was not good enough. We are Springboks playing at home and we should win,” a visibly upset vice-captain and lock Victor Matfield said after a defeat that left his team rooted to the bottom of the table with a single bonus point.
“We were pretty good in the first half only to lose momentum after the break. The positive was our performance in the early stages and now we must work even harder,” the 106-times capped Springbok said.
“We dropped too many balls, but held together enough to win. It was a lucky victory against a spirited South African side,” subdued Wallabies skipper and flank Rocky Elsom said. “It was a very physical encounter and we adapted reasonably well. The key is to win consistently, something which has eluded us at times in the past. Now we must prepare for the All Blacks in a couple of weeks.”
South Africa fielded a full-strength team boasting a world-record 850 caps except for injured loose forwards Schalk Burger and Juan Smith and were desperate to avenge a 39-20 loss in Sydney last month with a virtual “B” team.
The first scoring chance in cool, windy conditions fell to the Springboks after three minutes when Elsom committed a dangerous tackle and France-based fullback Francois Steyn made no mistake from 45m.
Australia hit back and looked set to score in the left corner until South Africa outside center Jaque Fourie intercepted a James O’Connor pass and the danger was eventually averted.
Much attention was on Springbok flyhalf Butch James, making a first Test start in three years after a spell with Bath in England, and he calmly slotted his first penalty kick between the posts on 16 minutes after the visitors infringed at a scrum.
However, his second penalty shot at goal four minutes later drifted wide of the right post after the ball fell over and the 32-year-old seemed anxious as he went through his routine a second time.
Springboks scrumhalf Fourie du Preez was impressive on his return after a 21-month injury-induced absence and when Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper failed to grasp a kick ahead, Fourie touched down only for the television match official to disallow the try for a knock-on.
Chances were few in a close first half fought predominantly between the 22m lines and James scuffed a drop-kick attempt, O’Connor hooked his first penalty and Steyn was short with an ambitious drop-goal effort.
Australia had a great opening 10 minutes in the second half that yielded an O’Connor penalty and a Pat McCabe try for an 8-6 advantage that stunned the expectant 47,850 home crowd.