South Africa overwhelmed Australia 28-8 on Saturday to retain hope of wrestling the Rugby Championship title away from New Zealand in a mouthwatering decider at home to the top-ranked All Blacks next weekend.
Although the Springboks’ celebrations were initially muted at Newlands after missing out on a four-try bonus point in a game they almost completely controlled, the win still meant they can threaten the world champion All Blacks next Saturday in Johannesburg — even if the task might be that much harder without the extra point.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed by beating the Aussies by 20 points,” South Africa captain Jean de Villiers said. “I thought we didn’t play well. We got the victory again, but there’s still areas that we need to improve on if we really want to take our game to the next level.”
South Africa scored 23 unanswered points in the first half against a creaking Australian defense for a record win over the Wallabies at Cape Town. However, the early momentum, capped by tries from hooker Adriaan Strauss and fullback Zane Kirchner in the first 15 minutes, disappeared in the second half.
Trailing 23-3 after 32 minutes, Australia won back a shred of respect by holding the Springboks scoreless for most of the second 40 with wing Willie le Roux grabbing the Boks’ third try only in the 72nd minute before teenage debutant Chris Feauai-Sautia had a consolation score for the visitors.
Despite the late bravery, Australia slipped to a sixth straight loss at Newlands — where they have not won since 1992 — and a fourth defeat in five in the championship and under new coach Ewen McKenzie.
“We showed a bit of character and ticker in the second half,” McKenzie said, adding that the struggling Wallabies were making progress in some areas. “I don’t want to bore you with the details. The reality is we didn’t get the game right. We were 20 points off.”
While South Africa and New Zealand throw everything at each other in Johannesburg, the Wallabies will be in Argentina for a game they must win to avoid making an already-desperate start under McKenzie much worse.
“Test rugby is unforgiving. We’re learning that,” McKenzie said.
At Newlands, Australia even led after seven minutes through a Christian Leali’ifano penalty.
That was swiftly swept away when Strauss, starting in place of Bismarck du Plessis, went over in the 13th minute from a succession of forward drives. Kirchner cruised in two minutes later in a sweeping backline move from deep in South Africa’s half.
With Morne Steyn adding 13 points with five from five shots at goal in the first half of his 50th test, returning scrumhalf Fourie du Preez marshaling the game and Australia down to 14 men for a period with flanker Michael Hooper’s yellow card, an ominous score appeared likely.
For most of the second half, a battling Australia — outplayed almost everywhere — held up the South Africans, even though they never threatened to end a losing run at Newlands that stretches back to 1992, the year South Africa returned to international rugby post-apartheid.
With both teams hampered at times by two yellow cards each, South Africa found late vigor to send Le Roux sliding in at the right corner with eight minutes to go and prepared themselves for a final onslaught in search of the fourth try. Instead, Australia broke out and pounced when a cross kick found 19-year-old Feauai-Sautia free on the left flank to touch down in the 78th — over 70 minutes after the Australians’ first points.
The victory won back the Nelson Mandela Plate for South Africa and gave them a chance at winning the championship title against New Zealand on Saturday. New Zealand defeated Argentina yesterday.
The two top-ranked teams will meet in the final round at Ellis Park, scene of the Springboks’ 1995 World Cup final win over the All Blacks, and parallels are already being drawn by a hugely excited South African audience.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” De Villiers said. “It’s a sold-out Ellis Park. A lot has happened in the past at that stadium.”