Morne Steyn and captain Adriaan Strauss were the two players to rise above the mob as the Springboks edged Australia 18-10 in their Rugby Championship match at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday.
Steyn struck four penalties and two drop goals to score all South Africa’ s points and secure a bloodyminded win.
It was a dire game though, especially in the second half, and it was the Wallabies who scored the only try of the match, through loosehead prop Scott Sio in the 14th minute.
Steyn was playing his first Test in the number 10 jersey since the corresponding game against Australia in 2014 and his trusty boot was invaluable in keeping the Springboks’ score ticking over because they never looked like scoring a try. It did not help with the territory stats though as, even with three accomplished kickers selected in Steyn, scrumhalf Rudy Paige and fullback Pat Lambie, the Wallabies still played well over 70% of the game inside South African territory.
An awful second half saw the Springboks grimly holding on to their 12-10 halftime lead and it was only in the last four minutes that Steyn kicked a penalty and then a drop goal to complete the victory.
It was a Steyn drop goal that also opened the scoring in the fourth minute as the Springboks went sailing into the Australian 22 and the Wallabies slowed down the ball at the ruck, the flyhalf using the advantage to land the ninth field goal of his career.
A good half-break by scrumhalf Will Genia then led to a penalty for offsides, inside centre Bernard Foley levelling the scores at 3-3 in the eighth minute.
The Wallaby try came six minutes later after Springbok wing Bryan Habana missed a touchkick after taking a mark; wing Reece Hodge produced a counter-attacking run and then the ball went inside, props Sekope Kepu, with lovely hands, and Sio, running a great line, showing top-class skills to collect the only try of the match, under the posts.
Foley converted (10-3) and a scrum penalty against Vincent Koch then saw Hodge attempt a monster 63m penalty, which went under the crossbar. It was strange that Foley did not attempt another kick at posts after that, with the wing missing two far easier and crucial efforts in the second half.
South Africa, undermined by consistently losing the ball after a couple of phases, did not reply until the 25th minute when Paige did well to come away with the ball after Australia waited for the second shove to put pressure on the Springbok scrum, the Wallabies then going off their feet at the resultant ruck, allowing Steyn to kick his first penalty.
Hooker Strauss added considerably to his stats for the competition with contributions across the board in a dazzling first half – turnovers, tackles and storming runs, they were all there, and one of those bursts led to referee Wayne Barnes, who produced as error-strewn a display as the players, giving Wallaby fullback Israel Folau a yellow card as he took out Habana, who was running clear on a chip-and-chase. Steyn added his second penalty and the Springboks had closed the gap to just one point.
There was time for another bullocking Strauss run just before halftime, leading to another Steyn penalty and a 12-10 lead at the break.
There was little to recommend in the second half, the Wallabies winning the kickoff inside Springbok territory and staying there for most of the next 40 minutes. But they were also mistake-ridden and lacking in structure and could not create another try-scoring opportunity.
Hodge had two penalty misses in the 50th and 52nd minutes, but the introduction of the Springboks’ replacement props, Julian Redelinghuys and Steven Kitshoff, had an immediate impact and the home side dominated the scrums thereafter and won a couple of crucial penalties.
Steyn had a 59-metre effort drop short, but the evergreen veteran had the last laugh as he slotted a penalty from a Francois Hougaardturnover and then, in the final minute, decided not to kick for touch after another scrum penalty, went for the tap and go and then slotted a drop goal from just outside the 22.
It was not a pretty win, but it was a vital one.
South Africa – Penalties: Morne Steyn (4). Drop goals: Steyn (2).
Australia – Try: Scott Sio. Conversion: Bernard Foley. Penalty: Foley.