Two simple lessons must sink in immediately for the Wallabies after they began their journey to the Rugby World Cup with an 18-point loss to the Springboks in Johannesburg.
But it was not all doom and gloom for Michael Cheika and his new-look side, although much of what Australia did well should be tempered by the fact it came against a South African outfit that was down on star quality.
With Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus having sent a forward party to New Zealand for next week’s Test in Wellington, Australia were facing an opponent without the world-class Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Malcolm Marx, Steve Kitshoff and Willie le Roux.
The absence of Kitshoff and Marx certainly didn’t hurt the Springboks’ scrum as the hosts won multiple penalties by powering over the top of the Wallabies to earn the favour of referee Paul Williams.
Cheika might not be overly concerned with the performance of the Wallaby scrum given the fact he was without likely first-choice props in Alan Ala’laatoa and Scott Sio, while Harry Johnson-Holmes, who was called up to make his debut midweek while he was halfway through a schnitzel at Sydney’s Lord Dudley Hotel, was thrown into the game earlier than he expected when James Slipper was forced off with an HIA.
What Cheika must ram home, however, is the need for the Wallabies to nail the clear-cut try-scoring opportunities that do fall their way and, although it may be a slight deviation from his aggressive mantra, the under-fire Australia coach must plead for greater discipline in reactionary scenarios.
Taniela Tupou’s second-half yellow card is inexcusable. The replacement prop’s reaction to Rynhardt Elstadt’s own dubious attempted cleanout simply cannot be tolerated during the Rugby Championship, and even more-so at the World Cup when far more eyeballs will be on each of the 48 matches. There should be no doubt the game’s administrators will want to be seen to be taking a zero-tolerance approach to foul play.
“I make it as the wrong call [Taniela Tupou yellow card]. The other guy [Elstadt] should have been sent to the sin bin,” Cheika said of the incident.
“The 4th official said he focused on the green player, who came in with a shoulder charge, I don’t know who it was. Then Taniela came in after that to get him, with his arms wrapped, at the right height. I’m not sure if just big contact is a penalty these days, but that’s the wrong decision.”
While Cheika can make the case that Tupou’s right arm was wrapped in the cleanout, it was the reaction and timing that forced Paul Williams to go to his pocket in a scenario you can guarantee will be the case come the World Cup in Japan.
When the Springboks scored only three minutes later, the impact of Tupou’s brain fade was evident, and it became abundantly clear just how costly the prop’s action was when scrum-half Herschel Jantjies grabbed his second just before the Wallaby’s return.
It is a fine line for the explosive Tupou, who had only moments earlier nailed another Springbok with the kind of thumping tackle that could turn a match the Wallabies’ way later in the year. The trick for Cheika and his coaching team will be to harness that energy but limit those 50/50 decisions that will certainly be deemed foul play in Japan just as it was on Saturday night.
The Wallabies could hardly debate the consistency of the yellow card either after Springboks centre Andre Esterhuizen was sin-binned for a high tackle that slid up on a falling Tom Banks during the first half.
The message is clear for all teams: Dangerous or foul play that puts an opposition player at risk of injury is going to cost you 10 minutes, or sometimes maybe more.
While the Wallabies are educating themselves by digesting the video of Saturday night’s defeat, they will curse two died-in-the-wool try-scoring opportunities that should have seen them up by at least seven points at halftime.
Neither mistake can be put down to a rustiness in combination.
Samu Kerevi merely got the timing wrong on his pass for a supporting Lukhan Salakaia-Loto while Dane Haylett-Petty will want to crawl into a tiny hole when he watches the replay of his knock-on over the line.
The positives the Wallabies can take are that they were able to create those twin opportunities when, towards the end of last year, they looked all at sea in an attacking framework that was far too deep.
That Australia were able to flatten up in the face of a rush Springboks defence, which now seems to be the desired formation for many of the world’s top Test teams, is a good sign for a team that no longer has the individual brilliance of Israel Folau at its disposal.
The Wallabies can also look positively on their lineout, so too the individual performances of scrum-half Nic White, debutant Isi Naisarani and Kerevi.
Fijian-born No. 8 Naisarani will have noted the extra pace and physicality in the step up from Super Rugby — a fumbled clearance from the base of the scrum and a carry where his bodyheight was too high both costing the visitors — but he in no way shirked the kind of determined carrying that he displayed first at the Force, and then the Brumbies and Rebels, and that Cheika had been waiting to introduce once Naisarani’s residency period was served.
Kerevi’s indecision in the back field and a missed tackle on Cobus Reinach for the replacement scrum-half’s post-siren five-pointer were the only negatives on an otherwise strong performance from the departing Reds skipper, who looks far more confident at No. 12 at Test level.
Cheika and his fellow selectors will likely entertain some changes for next week and will be sweating on the fitness of front-rowers Ala’laatoa, Sio and Tom Robertson after the Wallabies’ scrum was reduced to rubble on several occasions.
Remedy that set-piece, improve their discipline — particularly when baited into a reaction — and nailing the gilt-edged opportunities that do come their way and the Wallabies will go a long way to bouncing back at home next week to the Pumas.
With one game down and only four more to come before the World Cup, the time for course corrections is otherwise fast running out.