Brisbane, Australia (AP) — Matt Toomua kicked two penalties for the only points of the second half as injury-hit Australia beat South Africa 23-18 on Saturday for its first win of the season in the Rugby Championship.
South Africa led 18-17 at halftime 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 halftime.
Australia fought back in the second half, camping in South Africa’s half for long periods without being able to again break through the defense. 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 halftime, as much through their own failings as the quality of opposition defense. The responsibility fell to Toomua, returning to Australian rugby from England club 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 was happy to take a win in any circumstances after losing four of its previous five tests this season — including to New Zealand by 38-13 and 40-12 in the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship. Its preparation for Saturday’s match was heavily affected by injuries: it lose backrower David Pocock to a neck injury on Friday, fullback Israel to an ankle injury on Saturday and lock Adam Coleman, also on match day, for family reasons.
South Africa came close to snatching the match in its 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 fulltime showing on the clock and chose to take a scrum five meters from the Wallaby line, rather than a lineout which had been a source of strength earlier in the match. Flyhalf Bernard Foley, who had been contentiously dropped to the reserves by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika for the first time in 51 tests, came off the bench 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.”
The decision to start Kurtley Beale at flyhalf and Toomua at inside center, while dropping Foley to the bench, wasn’t entirely successful. Toomua played large parts of the match at first receiver and looked sound, Beale less so but the smothering nature of both defenses allowed little play in the open field.
Australia missed Pocock, who might have provided the regular edge it lacked at breakdowns.
South Africa, coming off a shock 32-19 loss to Argentina, was disappointed that it let itself down again with basic handling errors, though it didn’t try to open up the game until scoreboard pressure made that necessary in the second half.
“It was very tough,” captain Siya Kolisi said. “I think we made it tough for ourselves by not taking our opportunities again.”
Australia made an almost perfect start, scoring through Hooper inside two minutes after Toomua and Beale made space out wide for Lukhan Tui. After a series of pick and goes, Hooper scored from the 11th phase.
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 when Australia’s defense fell away.
Mapimpi made it 15-7 with a try in the 20th when, after attacking close in, South Africa moved the ball wide to the winger to outflank a compacted defense.
Toomua scored under the posts by pouncing on an over-thrown Springboks lineout in the 32nd.