This the bluest of Mondays

2011-10-10 00:00

THE Springboks, dominating possession and territory, but failing to take their scoring chances, suffered the most devastating of defeats as they went down to the brave but limited Wallabies 11-9 in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in Wellington yesterday.

The defending champions, controlling the set pieces and harassing Wallaby halfbacks Quade Cooper and Will Genia, did almost everything by the book. But the final chapter, the one on how to score points, went missing and they were unable to translate pressure and territory into victory.

In contrast, the Wallabies won by defending resolutely, outmanoeuvring the South Africans at the breakdown and taking advantage of Springboks’ mistakes on rare trips out of their half.

The bare statistics will add to the misery of the Springboks and their supporters. They had to make just 53 tackles to the Wallabies’ 147, Victor Matfield and company stole five Wallaby lineout balls without conceding one, they enjoyed 56% of the possession and had 76% of the territory.

The Wallabies, without any set piece platform, salvaged this game at the breakdown where the Boks had two problems. The first was losing their valuable fetcher Heinrich Brüssow to a broken rib after the first quarter and the second was adapting to referee Bryce Lawrence’s quaint interpretation at the ruck where he gave the superb Wallaby flank David Pocock a free ride.

Time and again, and most crucially as the Boks were twice lurking on the Wallaby line in the first half, he allowed the Wallabies to play the ball on the ground at the breakdown.

The Wallabies came away, Bok flank Schalk Burger lost the ball at a defensive ruck and Wallaby lock James Horwill scored the only try of the match. James O’Connor kicked a penalty to stretch the lead to 8-0 after 18 minutes, but Morné Steyn replied for the Boks who trailed 8-3 at the break.

The Boks kept the Wallabies pinned in their own half for most of the second half, out-muscling them at forward and keeping the panicky Wallaby halfbacks under constant pressure. Fullback Pat Lambie, who also shaved the right upright with a well-struck drop, thought he had scored after a searing break by centre Jean de Villiers, but was brought back for a forward pass and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez had the ball knocked from his grasp on the Wallaby line.

In spite of their second half control, both physically and territorially, the Springboks were awarded only one penalty in range which Steyn goaled and he then added a neat drop for the lead (9-8) after an hour. With Francois Hougaard and Bismarck du Plessis adding to the energy in the last quarter, the game was for the Boks to lose and they did just that in the final 10 minutes.

The Wallabies broke the shackles, replacement centre Berrick Barnes succeeded (where Cooper had kept failing) and kicked the Boks backed into their own half, and lock Danie Rossouw promptly and foolishly infringed at a lineout for O’Connor to land the winning penalty with eight minutes remaining.

The Springboks were understandably miffed at Lawrence’s rulings at the breakdown where they turned over possession on 10 occasions..

Springbok captain John Smit said he had spoken to Lawrence about the breakdown during the game.

“That was the only talking point between he and me,” Smit said. “The message clearly wasn’t going through.”

Both Smit and Bok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, in a backhanded way, praised Pocock.

“I guess he was brilliant at capitalising on the way the breakdown was being interpreted,” said Smit. “When you are attacking and keep the ball (as the Boks did), normally you are rewarded. That wasn’t the case tonight.”

Du Preez described Zimbabwean Pocock as one of the world’s best openside flanks.

“When the ref allows him to slow the ball down, Pocock will always be very effective,” Du Preez said.

Coach Peter de Villiers said that “tactically we played correctly, but the breakdown was a mess.”

“We didn’t take our chances. The Wallabies had a few opportunities and they took them. For the rest of the time we were in control. A couple of calls never went our way, but now isn’t the time to talk about the ref.”

But, ultimately, the Springboks have only themselves to blame, for not protecting their possession more effectively at the breakdown and for not fashioning at least one try in spite of their dominance.

Bok centre Jean de Villiers made a number of line-breaks and Lambie was faultless at fullback, but generally the backline lacked spark and creativity.

It is all very well playing for territory and waiting for opportunities to kick goals but, as the Boks found yesterday, sometimes the penalties just do not come.

There were moments yesterday when the Boks, playing with precision and power, looked the part but, in the end, it was all a massive letdown and a host of senior players now leave the scene with their coach and captain. “It has been a long road for us and this is a very sad exit,” Fourie du Preez said, admitting the match was the most frustrating he had played.

“We are proud of our performance and we felt that we were totally in control and that’s rugby. We did enough to win the game, it just didn’t show on the scoreboard.”

Unfortunately, for all South Africans on this bluest of Mondays, that is the only place it counts.

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