With the 2021 Rugby Championship entering its fourth round, last week’s shock victory for the Wallabies over World Champions South Africa had really opened up the table. With this round being a reverse of last week’s fixtures, the Springboks had an immediate chance to get revenge, but they almost went behind after just 4 minutes after a break by Samu Kerevi off first phase ball was ended only by Andrew Kellaway failing to keep hold of Folau Fainga’a’s offload. The Springboks soon had a chance of their own with a 5m lineout, but after Eben Etzebeth broke off early and was brought to ground, he was adjudged to have crawled along the floor. The Wallabies were soon back on the attack, and after Faf de Klerk was sent to the bin for cynically killing the ball, it took them just a few phases from the resulting 5m lineout before Len Ikitau stepped out of Handré Pollard’s tackle and crossed for his first Test try. Pollard cut the lead with a penalty, but Ikitau was soon over for a second try, after a clever inside pass from Tom Banks to the late-arriving Marika Koribete helped create an overlap on the right, with the wing then sending the young centre over in the corner. With South Africa back to 15 men, the game tightened up, and Pollard kicked 3 penalties to one from Cooper, while Lachlan Swinton also spent 10 minutes on the naughty step for a no-arms tackle on Duane Vermeulen.
Having cut Australia’s lead to just 3 points by half time, the World Champions took the lead soon after the break, with Faf de Klerk putting in a clever grubber down a narrow blindside and Lukhanyo Am beating the turning Reece Hodge before dotting the ball down—a small atonement for last week. However they could not match up to the Wallabies for long, and the introduction of Pete Samu from the bench just opened the game up even more, with Marika Koroibete starting the final quarter with his first 2 tries of the campaign. With the game entering the final 10 minutes, the Wallabies held a 13 point lead and the South Africans were pushing for a try, but some solid Australian defence saw Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi each winning crucial turnover penalties, while Cobus Wiese was given a yellow card for going off his feet to hit Kerevi in the head at the second turnover, allowing the Wallabies to clear their lines and hold on for a 30-17 victory that will see them climb into the top 3 of the World rankings and go just 1 point behind South Africa in the table.
It’s amazing how just a couple of personnel changes can completely change a team, but that seems to be what has happened here with the Wallabies. With Quade Cooper coming in at 10 and not needing a second playmaker at centre, it has given the Wallabies the opportunity to play a more physical 12 in Samu Kerevi and a 13 in Ikitau who can exploit the space provided.
With that midfield, coupled with a strong and dynamic carrier in Marika Koroibete, and you have a back line capable of running riot and creating space for Banks and Kellaway. However a great back line still needs a pack to help them, and they are developing that too. Taniela Tupou must be close to having his membership to the front row union revoked with the way he plays in the open—just look at his input for Koroibete’s try! Meanwhile in the back row, Michael Hooper is always a danger in space, while Rob Valentini just looks more comfortable throwing his weight around with every match. and then when Pete Samu comes off the bench, he brings another dynamic carrier who also has the strength to beak tackles.
By having these carriers, Australia now have not just the necessary physicality to break the gainline, but the players to follow that up and keep the team on the front foot with 3 or 4 phases of hard carrying. Then add in the handling skills of some of these players like Tupou and Kerevi, and there is the distinct threat that one line break could be all it takes for the team to get over for a try.
While I think that Australia got their selections almost spot on this week, I think that South Africa made a big mistake. With Pieter-Steph du Toit missing trough injury, Franco Mostert was moved into the back row and Malvin Orie given the start at lock. While this selection would fit how the team has played of late, they finally chose to play attacking rugby in this match, and I think the selection of Mostert at flanker hurt them.
This is nothing against Mostert, he is a great player with an incredible engine, but the open game is then asking so much more of him. A better selection would have been one of the three back rowers on the bench: Kwagga Smith. The former 7s star is an incredible talent, but his speed and ability to get around the park is much more effective in an open game like this than the tight territorial battles we have seen the Springboks play of late.
Wanting Mostert at flanker to provide a third lineout option was understandable during the Lions series, but with Duane Vermeulen back in the line-up, this isn’t necessary. South Africa have great strength in depth, Jacques Nienaber now needs to start considering which players are better for the type of game they are looking to play.
While doing the double over the World Champions is already cause for celebration, it was even more so for Michael Hooper, who was becoming the Wallabies’ most capped captain. With 113 caps to his name (placing him 28ᵗʰ all time for most-capped rugby players) and at only 29 years old, her certainly has the chance to add plenty more caps to his tally before his career comes to an end.
And those caps are all well-earned. The openside is a fantastic talent, one of the very best fetchers in the Southern Hemisphere, but also with the leadership and an all-round game that sets him apart from many other 7s. Hooper’s work rate is unmatched, and even in the worst Australian performances, he will often still stand out as one of the best players on the park. He has great handling skills and the speed to be like another centre when the team is on the attack, but also the strength and grit to match any back rower in the more physical side of the game. And as this tournament has proved, he’s not afraid to spill some claret for his country.
Perhaps it has been due to playing so much of his career in the shadow of David Pocock, perhaps it is the way Australia have been so up and down through his career; whatever the reason, I don’t believe that Hooper gets the wider acclaim that he deserves. Considering how frequently he has had to adapt to new laws at the breakdown during his career, when he hangs up his boots in the (hopefully still far away) future, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him remembered as one of the best opensides to play the game.