The Springboks still missed their kicks, but with a flyhalf who asked questions of the opposing defence from behind a strong forward platform, it really didn’t matter. Bryan Habana scored a hat-trick that sparked a rousing 31-8 Castle Rugby Championship win over Australia on Saturday.
The big win enabled the Boks to maintain their 100% record against Australia at Loftus Versfeld, and it would also have helped to considerably ease the pressure that has been heaped on one of that stadium’s favourite sons, Heyneke Meyer, early in his national coaching tenure.
It was easily the best performance the Boks have turned in since Meyer took over, with the dominance they enjoyed for the first half of the second test against England in Johannesburg in June this time being extended to something much closer to the full 80 minutes.
The Wallabies had a horrible night with injuries, and by using all seven subs during the course of the contest they were forced to play the last nine minutes with just 14 men.
The injuries cut a swathe through the backline in particular, with centre Adam Ashley-Cooper, who was stretchered from the field shortly before halftime, fullback Berrick Barnes and wing Digby Ioane forcing a dramatic reshuffle.
But that shouldn’t detract in any way from the Boks' performance, for it was clear that the Wallabies were going to struggle to survive the pressure applied by a South African team that laid the platform by dominating the collisions long before the injuries, and then later a yellow card to James Slipper, started to become a factor.
Francois Louw hasn’t played a better game for South Africa, and fittingly it was he who produced the surge and dummy that, with his perfectly timed pass, sent Habana in for his third try with two minutes to go.
It was a try that placed the seal on one of the great Bok performances, and as they had already got their fourth when Habana scored his second earlier, it meant they finished with a bonus point plus one.
Flanker Louw might well have been the man of the match had it not been for Habana’s brilliant finishing – in fact he did more than just finish, he was all over the field both on attack and defence – and his former Stormers teammate Duane Vermeulen was not far behind him with the influence exerted at the breakdown.
And with Eben Etzebeth marking his return from suspension by playing out of his skin, and Andries Bekker turning in his best game in ages, the visitors were also under constant pressure in the lineouts, which meant the Aussies simply never had any chance to breathe against a Bok team that was relentless with its intensity.
Much of the build-up was of course dominated by the change of selection that suggested a new approach.
Skipper Jean de Villiers later claimed there had been no change to the game-plan, and technically that may be correct, but what most emphatically did change was the attacking potential of the Boks now that they have a flyhalf who attacks the gainline.
It was because young Johan Goosen was able to ask the questions of the opposing defences that the previous flyhalf wasn’t able to, that suddenly the backs found themselves running into space.
It didn’t start well for Goosen. He would have been forgiven for missing his first shot at goal because it was from more than 50 metres, but the next one, on the 10-minute mark, was far more kickable, and like the first shot at goal, he hooked it to the left.
He looked nervous, which was understandable, and it was a brilliant bit of captaincy from De Villiers to introduce Ruan Pienaar as the goalkicker after that. Goosen made one poor decision that led to the Boks being caught in possession in the first quarter, but it quickly became apparent what he brings to the Boks, as after that he produced a brilliant break that nearly led to a try and should have settled those jangling nerves.
He was to produce at least two more excellent breaks later on, but it was also his distribution that was good, with his passing game creating opportunities out wide, such as a disallowed try in the corner from Zane Kirchner just before the break, that the Boks never enjoyed in the previous matches.
The Free Stater was helped by a much better showing from Pienaar at No 9.
JUDICIOUS KICKING GAME
He took a huge amount of pressure off Goosen with his decision-making and his judicious kicking game, and he reveled in the platform that he was given to play off by a forward pack that assistant coach Johan van Graan should be well pleased with.
It took a while for the Boks to get points on the board, but they enjoyed 65% of the territory in the first quarter, and then as the half wore on they started to make their dominance on the field start to count on the scoreboard too.
A strong Bok mauling drive in the 19th minute forced a penalty (and a bout of fisticuffs) that De Villiers elected to kick for touch.
The driving maul didn’t get going from the resultant lineout, but the Boks showed patience in retaining possession through the phases, and bringing some width to their game, before the Wallabies eventually just ran out of numbers as Kirchner went over on the right.
Pienaar was on the mark with his first conversion attempt, and then came a scorching break from Goosen that was held up on the line, with TMO Shaun Veldsman ruling that there was a double movement.
Being denied what would have been a highly popular try did not deter Goosen though, and his switches in direction as the Boks attacked near the line played a big role in creating the second try, completed by Habana.
The Boks came close to scoring a few more times before halftime, and would have felt at the break that they should have scored a few more points, but would nonetheless have been pleased to be ahead 14-3.
The third try came in the 53rd minute, with the Boks cleverly exploiting a situation where they had eight forwards against six as Slipper had just been sent off and a replacement for the injured Radike Samo had yet to appear.
The irrepressible Louw was the man who completed the try as he barged over, and then came some brilliant opportunism from Habana, who took a quick throw in on the hour mark before taking a return pass from Adriaan Strauss and power 40 metres for the try.
SOUTH AFRICA – Tries: Zane Kirchner, Bryan Habana (3), Francois Louw.. Conversions: Ruan Pienaar (3).
AUSTRALIA – Try: Mike Harris. Penalty: Kurtley Beale.