Andre Markgraaf, the South African coach, could hardly believe it. His Springbok side had somehow conjured an unlikely defeat out of certain victory and stopped a run of 15 Test victories in its tracks.
After just two games in the job, Markgraaf was under immediate pressure and the self- destruct button pressed by his full-back Andre Joubert had not helped his long-term prospects.
Glumly sucking back a beer at Sydney's cricket ground after-match function, Markgraaf said: "We should have won, but we did too many things wrong. Our kicking game was pathetic. If we had put the Aussies under pressure, we would have won. We just didn't have enough match practice to get it right.
"That sounds pretty lame, but one international - against Fiji - was never going to be enough for the Tri-Nations' championship. Australia had four games before meeting us and that made the difference. I don't want to make excuses, but that is the bottom line."
Markgraaf is hoping that three key players will be fit to take on New Zealand on Saturday in Christchurch. The captain and flanker Francois Pienaar (arm), half-back Joost van der Westhuizen (shoulder) and Joubert (hand) were injured during the match.
It was feared Pienaar might have suffered a fracture, but Morne Du Plessis, the team manager, said the early diagnosis was positive. "He hasn't had X-rays, the doctor deemed it not necessary," Du Plessis said.
Markgraaf's game plan against Australia was not helped by a series of dropped passes as South Africa unbelievably failed to capitalise on a lion's share of the ball. An early Joubert penalty seemed to provide the platform for a big win, but Matt Burke hit back with two kicks before a 32nd-minute run by Daniel Manu gave Joe Roff the opportunity to score his sixth try in only his eighth Test match appearance.
Joubert's disappointing kicking display forced Pienaar to give the job to the outside-half Henry Honiball. Two early second-half penalties did seem to put South Africa back on course, but then Joubert fumbled a pass in the backfield to allow Tim Horan to race home. Pieter Hendriks scored with minutes to go, but it was never enough.
Australia: Tries: Roff, Horan. Conversion: Burke. Penalties: Burke 3. South Africa: Try: Hendriks. Conversion: Honiball. Penalties: Honiball 2, Joubert 1.
AUSTRALIA: M Burke (NSW); B Tune (Queensland), J Roff (ACT), T Horan (Queensland), D Campese (NSW); P Howard (ACT), G Gregan (ACT); M Brial (NSW), D Wilson (Queensland), D Manu (NSW), J Eales (Queensland), G Morgan (Queensland), A Heath (NSW), M Foley (Queensland), D Crowley (Queensland).
SOUTH AFRICA: A Joubert (Natal); J Small (Natal), J Mulder (Transvaal), B Venter (OFS), P Hendriks (Transvaal); H Honiball (Natal), J Van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); G Teichmann (Natal), R Kruger (Northern Transvaal), F Pienaar (Transvaal), M Andrews (Natal), J Ackermann (Northern Transvaal), M Hurter (Northern Transvaal), J Allan (Natal), O Du Rant (OFS). Replacements: J Roux (Transvaal) for Van der Westhuizen, 71; N Drotske (OFS) for Pienaar. 77.
Referee: A Spreadbury (England).