The disappointment of yesterday morning was compounded as Australia derailed South Africa’s bid to defend their World Cup title in an error-ridden 11-9 quarter-final.
The Wallabies spent much of the game on the back foot, the misfiring Quade Cooper unable to guide his side out of his own half for much of the 80 minutes.
But a first-half try from captain James Horwill and two James O’Connor penalties, the second with just eight minutes to play, were enough to see Australia home against the most experienced Springbok side ever — boasting eight players who began the 2007 World Cup final, with a further three on the bench.
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Heroic Australia defeat South Africa
South Africa’s Willem Alberts, left, and Australia Wallabies’ Quade Cooper fight for control of the ball. Photo: Reuters
Experience alone, however, could not carry the often leaden-footed Springbok side lacking any attacking spark into next weekend’s semi-final against the winners of Sunday’s other last eight clash between New Zealand and Argentina.
Early exchanges were dominated by aerial ping-pong, a lot of which was inaccurate and often lacked an effective supporting chase-game.
New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence’s unfathomably liberal take on the breakdown made for some ugly viewing, and on countless occasions hands in rucks and players flying in from all directions went unpunished.
A punishing tackle by Radiko Samo on Schalk Burger in the 11th minute saw the ball squirt free, the Australian No 8 recovering to offload to Pat McCabe who in turn found Horwill in support to crash over.
With their heads up, Wallaby fullback Kurtley Beale split the defence from the restart, but hooker Stephen Moore was not quick enough to evade the fine covering tackle by Burger.
O’Connor kicked an easy penalty in the 17th minute as the Springboks failed to convert their monopoly on territory into points.
With star Springbok fetcher Heinrich Brussow taken off the pitch injured, Australia openside David Pocock forced a number of crucial turnovers but Cooper was in erratic form and could not steer the Wallabies upfield.
Morne Steyn missed a 50-metre penalty as the Boks pressed, with Bryan Habana hauled down after cutting back inside and fellow wing JP Pietersen was bundled down with the line beckoning.
Steyn spurned a second shot of goal to kick for the corner, but the ruck from the ensuing lineout saw another dubious turnover.
The fly-half finally got South Africa on the scoreboard with a 39th minute penalty after Pocock was properly adjudged to have handled at a ruck in front of the posts.
But a third effort from halfway fell short, the Boks ruing the absence through injury of long-range specialist Frans Steyn.
The Springboks opened the second period with Pat Lambie crossing the line, but referee Lawrence called play back for a Jean de Villiers forward pass.
South Africa captain John Smit and Habana were soon taken off, but Morne Steyn cut the deficit to two with a 56th minute penalty and the Springboks were given added added momentum by ‘supersubs’ Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Hougaard.
Just four minutes later, Bok playmaker Morne Steyn struck a perfect 35-metre drop-goal to hand his side the lead for the first time.
Lambie missed an ambitious long-range drop-goal as the Boks sought to close down the game.
But when veteran lock Victor Matfield was penalised for bringing down Samo in a line-out, O’Connor made no mistake with his second penalty to make it 11-9 Australian held on for a fourth consecutive victory over South Africa.
“It was a huge effort from the boys, they really put us under pressure,” said Horwill. “We knew we had to stick in and defence wins big games,” the lock added.
Dejected Springbok skipper John Smit said: “It’s a sad way to end. It was a ding dong battle between two good teams.
“We did enough to win this game, we just weren’t accurate enough.”
The Wallabies will now play the winners of Sunday’s other quarter-final between hosts New Zealand and Argentina in a last four clash at Auckland’s Eden Park on October 16.
AUSTRALIA 11 (James Horwill try James O’Connor 2 pens) bt SOUTH AFRICA 9 (Morne Steyn 2 pens drop goal) at Westpac Stadium. Referee: Bryce Lawrence. Crowd: 34,914.