Matt Toomua kicked two penalties for the only points of the second half as injury-hit Australia beat South Africa 23-18 for the Wallabies’ first win of the season in the Rugby Championship.
South Africa led 18-17 at half-time but Toomua, in his first Test start in more than two years, kicked Australia into the lead in the 54th minute and clinched the win in the 68th in a match more notable for defensive intensity than attacking skill.
The Springboks dominated territory in a first half in which both teams scored two tries: Australia through captain Michael Hooper and Toomua, and South Africa through hooker Mbongeni Mbonami and winger Makazole Mapimpi, both of whom were replaced before half-time.
Australia fought back in the second half, camping in South Africa’s half for long periods without being able to break through the defence. The Wallabies gave up scrum penalties under pressure in the first half but also turned that around in the second, notably when the giant young prop Taniela Tupou took the field.
Neither side managed a try after half-time, as much through their own failings as the quality of the opposition defence. The responsibility fell to Toomua, returning to Australian rugby from Leicester, to decide the game from the kicking tee. There was some satisfaction for Australia that the last and decisive penalty was won by Tupou at a scrum.
Australia were happy to take a win in any circumstances after losing four of their previous five Tests this season – including to New Zealand by 38-13 and 40-12 in the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship. Their preparation for yesterday’s match was heavily affected by injuries: they lost flanker David Pocock to a neck injury on Friday, full-back Israel Folau to an ankle injury yesterday and lock Adam Coleman, also on match day, for family reasons.
South Africa came close to snatching the match in the dying moments. Replacement Francois Louw was over the Australian line with less than three minutes remaining but his possible match-winning try was disallowed because of a knock-on by hooker Malcolm Marx in the lead-up.
The Springboks won another penalty with full-time showing on the clock and chose to take a scrum five metres from the Wallaby line, rather than a lineout which had been a source of strength earlier in the match. Fly-half Bernard Foley, who had been contentiously dropped to the bench by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika for the first time in 51 Tests, came on to claim an intercept which snuffed out that final threat and ended the match.
“We knew it was going to be [tight],” Hooper said. “With rain coming down all day we knew it was going to be a hard effort.”
Australia made an almost perfect start, scoring through Hooper inside two minutes. But Mbonami scored in the 14th minute to give South Africa a 10-7 lead. The Springboks mounted one of their hallmark lineout drives and the hooker dived over.
Mapimpi made it 15-7 with a try in the 20th minute before Toomua scored under the posts by pouncing on an over-thrown Springboks lineout in the 32nd minute.