Rugby: Boks break Brisbane drought to leave Wallabies high and dry

South Africa’s first victory in the Sunshine State leaves new Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie without a win, and Australia already out of the running for this year’s Rugby Championship. Overpowered by a huge Springbok pack and smashed at the breakdown, the Wallabies were beaten by twenty-six points and failed to score a try. With Argentina arriving for next weekend’s game in Perth buoyed by a strong performance, and only a narrow defeat, in New Zealand at the weekend, this is a hugely important week for McKenzie. It will take all his powers of man management and motivation, key factors in the glory days he brought to the Suncorp as Queensland Reds coach, to restore confidence in the side and prepare them for the physical challenge the Pumas will pose.

The first half of Saturday’s game was a disappointing spectacle. Riddled with handling errors and infringements, neither side could gain any real momentum. The stop-start nature of the game led to frustration out on the park, and there was plenty of niggle between the sides. South Africa scored the only try of the first half when prop Coenie Oosthuizen, aka Shrek, burrowed over the line from close range. Christian Leali’ifano kept Australia in touch with a couple of penalties but Morne Steyn was successful on three occasions to give the Springboks a ten-point half time lead.

The Wallabies made an encouraging start to the second half, Leali’ifano reducing the deficit by three, but the hammering they were getting up front was sapping their energy. They survived Michael Hooper’s sin-binning for a dangerous tackle on flying winger Bryan Habana, as they themselves had failed to capitalise on a one man advantage early in the game after flanker Willem Alberts’ yellow card. By the time Hooper returned to the fray on the hour mark, however, the dominance of the South Africans at the breakdown was reflected in the stats, the visitors having notched up forty wins at rucks. From there the dominance translated onto the scoreboard. Springboks skipper Jean De Villiers crossed the line unmolested after Habana and scrum half Ruan Pienaar created the gap, then full back Zane Kirchner finished off a brilliant move of wide passing and quick hands. Winger Willie Le Roux rounded things off with a solo effort that saw him slice through a tired Wallaby defence, earning South Africa a resounding victory and the four-try bonus point.

The Springboks’ powerful forward performance put Wallaby playmakers Will Genia and Quade Cooper on the back foot all night. The usually outstanding Genia had one of his quietest games in a gold jersey, and Cooper had a tough time on his much talked about return to the starting fifteen: he tried to create space but spent much of the evening going sideways, rather than getting across the gain line. Fans will have to wait to reap the benefits of Israel Folau’s move from wing to full back – the code-hopper looked to be Australia’s most potent weapon on those occasions he touched the ball, but they were so few and far between, and under such pressure, that he was unable to influence the outcome. Australia’s forwards will have to front up and provide a platform to give him the chance to showcase his unique talents: Folau’s decision to commit to rugby for a further two years is the one bright spot in a gloomy few weeks for rugby followers, and potentially for the country at large as his new contract period includes the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The Wallabies’ four match losing streak is their longest in four years, and they have now conceded fourteen tries in the last three home games. While McKenzie espouses an attacking brand of rugby, and has one of the most dangerous backlines in the world game at his disposal, he is also a pragmatist: all that now matters in Perth is victory against Argentina. Whether that comes from spectacular tries by James O’Connor and Israel Folau or from the boot of Christian Leali’ifano is immaterial at this stage. The Wallabies, and their fans, just need the win, to regain confidence and get them off the bottom of the Rugby Championship ladder.

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