South Africa underlined their Tri-Nations intentions with a clinical 29-17 victory over the Australia at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday.
South Africa underlined their Tri-Nations intentions with a clinical 29-17 victory over Australia at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday.
An upset was on the cards after Wallaby full-back Adam Ashley-Cooper crossed for a try in the opening minute of the game.
But the Springboks bounced back in emphatic style, conjuring up a trademark performance of brain and brawn that bore forth 24 points from the metronomic boot of MornÃ© Steyn and a try for old soldier Victor Matfield.
The result represents more than one South African hand on the Tri-Nations trophy, it extinguishes any lingering doubts about South Africa's standing as the world's best team.
They saw off the best of Britain and Ireland, recorded consecutive wins over the All Blacks and have now handed a frisky Australian side a lesson in structured rugby.
Once again the hosts were outscored in the try department – Matt Giteau followed Ashley-Cooper over the whitewash – but what does it matter when you hold such territorial mastery? Not even Cecil Rhodes was this hungry for land.
It's telling to note that all but one of South Africa's 14 penalties were awarded within reasonable range of the gold posts. Of those, MornÃ© Steyn converted seven and Francois Steyn missed another.
By way of contrast, Australia were awarded eight penalties, none of which tickled the fancy of Giteau's left peg.
South Africa's game plan is as simple as it is effective: brutal defence, solid set-pieces, dynamic counter-rucking and, most importantly, field position. It's not the most attractive way to play rugby, but the beauty is that it's almost impossible to trump.
Australia thought the antidote could lie in shaking South Africa out of their structure by playing it fast and loose. It worked well enough in fits and starts, but these Boks are far too experienced to be flustered by a team in its early adolescence.
Ashley-Cooper's early try was, in retrospect, the worst possible start for Australia: it stung like a boot in South Africa's collective backside.
Seething counter-rucking squeezed three quick-fire penalties out of Australia and the locals had nudged ahead by the 13th minute.
Berrick Barnes won back the lead with a smart drop-goal, but a penalty and drop-goal combo from MornÃ© Steyn pulled South Africa clear – and there they remained, without even the briefest look over their shoulders.
With a cushion of points in place, John Smit saw fit to add a little jazz to the Boks' sheet music by dinking through the daintiest of grubbers for the on-rushing Bryan Habana. Lachie Turner managed to get a hand to it, but the bobbling ball was snatched by the giant mitts of Matfield who crashed over for the unlikeliest of tries.
Australia's day then went from bad to worse. Much worse.
In quick succession they lost their captain, Stirling Mortlock, to injury and Giteau and Richard Brown to the sin-bin – the fly-half earning his time for an ugly, airborne challenge on Fourie du Preez; the flank for finally breaking the patience of referee Alain Rolland at the breakdown.
The Boks profited from Brown's misdemeanour via MornÃ© Steyn's boot to leave the game all but out of reach of the visitors at 23-10 at the break.
Australia made a better fist of the second period. The rust that ruined their passing game in the first half fell away (what kind of tournament allows a side to sit around for three weeks after their opening game?) and they began to play their rugby in South Africa's half.
Whilst Australia's line-out was nothing short of abysmal, the gold scrum held up surprisingly well and they were even able to repel a five-metre scrum on their own line.
But they were, again, powerless to prevent MornÃ© Steyn from sending over his sixth penalty as the game ticked towards the hour mark.
A sublime break from young James O'Connor, on for Mortlock, put Australia within striking distance of the green line and Giteau finally knifed through to score his side's second try.
But it was too little too late, and MornÃ© Steyn – who else? – drilled home that very point by landing his seventh penalty of the afternoon at the death. It doesn't get more ruthless than that.
Man of the match: Schalk who? MornÃ© Steyn deserves praise for his work, but he is afforded an armchair ride by his forwards, and the man winning him the lion's share of kickable penalties was Heinrich BrÃ¼ssow. We have suspected it for a while but it is now official: the Boks have unearthed a flawless diamond.
Moment of the match: Surely Victor Matfield's try – or rather John Smit's outrageous grubber! The frustrated fly-half deserves to be heavily fined for behaviour that would surely have caused self-respecting props to weep shameful tears on to their meat pies. Let's hope big Bakkies Botha also answers to the name 'Enforcer' in the bar.
Villian of the match: No debate here. Matt Giteau can expect a visit from the citing officer for his reckless, elbow-first 'challenge' on the airborne Fourie du Preez.
For South Africa:
Pens: M Steyn 7
Drop: M Steyn
Tries: Ashley-Cooper, Giteau
Con: Giteau 2
Yellow card(s): Giteau (Australia) – body-check, 34; Brown (Australia) – off-side, 35; Smith (Australia) – hands in the ruck, 78.
South Africa: 15 Frans Steyn, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 MornÃ© Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Heinrich BrÃ¼ssow, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 John Smit (c), 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Andries Bekker, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Ricky Januarie, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Adi Jacobs.
Australia: Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Lachie Turner, 13 Stirling Mortlock (c), 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Richard Brown, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 James Horwill, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Ben Alexander, 18 Dean Mumm, 19 David Pocock, 20 Will Genia, 21 Peter Hynes, 22 James O'Connor.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Tim Hayes (Wales)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
By Andy Jackson