Quade Cooper gamble pays off as Wallabies beat South Africa at their own game

One win against South Africa does not make the Wallabies world champions, but their upset 28-26 victory against the Springboks on the Gold Coast has given the Australians a tantalising glimpse of what they might be capable of achieving.

The 2023 World Cup is a long way away and the Wallabies still have to make big improvements, but if you can beat the best in the world, surely, you can beat anyone.

After losing 3-0 to the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup series, the Wallabies were given little chance against the Springboks, but they beat them at their own game. Coach Dave Rennie’s controversial decision to recall veteran playmaker Quade Cooper after an absence of three years from Test rugby was vindicated.

Cooper is a mercurial player, but he possessed the skill-set to execute Rennie’s game-plan, which revolved around tactical kicking. Under-playing his hand, Cooper controlled the Wallabies’ play and gave them direction. His deft passing also got block-busting inside-centre Samu Kerevi into the game and over the advantage line.

But Cooper will be long remembered for his goal-kicking, landing eight goals from eight attempts, including a match-winning penalty on the brink of his 45-metre range on full-time.

Whether Cooper would be as effective against his old nemesis the All Blacks is difficult to know, but it would be interesting to find out. Even at 33 years of age, if Cooper continues to perform like he did against the Springboks, there is no reason why he should not be part of the Wallabies’ 2023 World Cup campaign.

Rennie gave Cooper a job to do and he carried it out with an almost Zen-like calmness. The Springboks like to play without the ball so Rennie instructed Cooper to kick it back to them. The tactic worked. If they played this conservatively a few years ago, their fans would have booed, but Australian rugby has become so desperate for success the 15,191 crowd cheered the kick-fest.

The Wallabies played a high tempo, expansive game against the All Blacks, but were hoisted with their own petard, making costly mistakes. The slower tempo of last Sunday night’s game suited the Wallabies better because it helped them to reduce their high error rate and remain focused.

Significantly, the Wallabies were outscored 7-0 by the All Blacks in the third Bledisloe Cup Test in Perth after Kiwi fullback Jordie Barrett was red-carded, but they capitalised on the yellow-carding of South African captain Siya Kolisi and fullback Willie le Roux, scoring 10 points while the Springboks were down to 14 men.

Rennie demanded the Wallabies forwards “steel up” against the physically intimidating South Africans and they did. The Springboks pride themselves on their set-pieces, but the Wallabies pressured them at scrum-time and in the lineout. A scrum penalty in the 39th minute gave Cooper the opportunity to give the Wallabies a crucial eight-point buffer at half-time and it was an under-pressure South African scrum that led to the penalty goal that Cooper kicked on full-time.

Importantly, when the Springboks hit the front 26-25 after replacement hooker Malcolm Marx scored his second try in the 71st minute, the Wallabies never gave up and found a way to win.

Of course, the Wallabies must now back up this performance in the return match with the Springboks at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Saturday night. They were justifiably elated with their victory, but will need to sober up pretty quickly to avoid a Bok-lash.

The Springboks out-scored the Wallabies three tries to one, albeit all off rolling mauls from five metre lineouts. Uncharacteristically, the Springboks’ fly-halves Handre Pollard (four from seven) and Damian Willemse (none from one) left 10 points on the field with wayward goal-kicking. That is highly unlikely to happen again.

Ill-discipline crept into their game in the second-half when blindside flanker Lachie Swinton and hooker Folau Fainga’a were both penalised for no-arm tackles. Swinton’s infringement saw referee Luke Pearce reverse a penalty he had awarded to the Wallabies, while Fainga’a was yellow-carded. A minute after Fainga’a left the field Marx scored his first try off the back of a rolling maul against the seven-man Australian pack to get South Africa within one point with 20 minutes to go.

The Wallabies forwards can still be brutal, but they will need to maintain their discipline on Saturday night, particularly if the Springboks find their goal-kicking boots.

After conceding five intercept tries against the All Blacks, the Wallabies kept long passes to a minimum against the Springboks, but they almost gave away another intercept when Le Roux got his fingertips under a no-look pass by replacement halfback Nic White to outside-centre Len Ikitau. Le Roux was yellow-carded for a deliberate knock-on, but it could have easily been a try to the Springboks if he caught the ball.

Whether the Wallabies’ win was a one-off or the start of something special remains to be seen, but it was certainly highly encouraging. For one week, at least, Australia will feel on top of the world.