Rugby Union: Stransky rediscovers his touch

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The Independent Online
South Africa 25 Australia 19

The spiky haircut looked just the same. The intense gaze was unchanged. The softly spoken answers were almost identical.

We could all have been back at the after-match press conference at last year's World Cup final at Ellis Park - and Joel Stransky knew it.

Fifteen months ago Stransky kicked the extra-time winner that settled the World Cup final and assured his own place in Springbok rugby legend.

The immediate future also seemed bright but, surprisingly, Stransky instead fell on hard times. His sharp-eyed confidence ebbed away. The unfailing kicking accuracy deserted the Western Province outside-half. Suddenly a nation's hero had lost the plot. Inevitably, almost reluctantly, he was pushed to one side.

Stransky's re-emergence has been almost as startling as his sudden decline had been unscripted and unexpected. An injury to the silken-running Henry Honiball gave him his opportunity against New Zealand in Christchurch two weeks ago. His performance then and Honiball's continued injury problems left the coach, Andre Markgraaff, with no other options.

Stransky duly obliged with an impressive 25-point return that was just enough on Saturday to give South Africa their first Tri-Nations victory and devalue a courageous second-half Australian comeback.

Stransky's six penalties alongside his opportunist 20th-minute try have set up the Springboks for their four-Test run-in with the All Blacks over the next month. Stransky will clearly be playing his part.

He explained: "I was very disappointed to be left out of the side at the start of the season and miss our games against Fiji and Australia. That did hurt, but I also realised that the coach had made the right decision. My form was at a very low ebb and he didn't really have much other choice. I couldn't argue with the decision but it made me determined to get back.

"In the past couple of weeks I thought I felt all my old confidence coming back. My kicking is as good as ever. I'm striking the ball like a dream so this performance was particularly sweet for me."

For the Australian captain, John Eales, without doubt one of the world's most influential forwards, the defeat was hard to take. Only seven days earlier, New Zealand had stolen an injury-time victory and this time it was the Australians who seemed sure to pinch the result in the dying seconds.

A 73rd-minute try by the ever-improving Ben Tune gave them their late chance. As the Australians piled on the pressure a score seemed inevitable but just as the South Africans threatened to buckle, Stransky stepped in, made a crucial interception and cleared their lines one last time. It was a fitting statement to round off a superbly controlled all-round display.

South Africa: Try Stransky; Conversion Stransky; Penalties Stransky 6. Australia: Try Tune; Conversion Eales; Penalty Eales.

SOUTH AFRICA: J Small (Natal); J Swart (Western Province), J Mulder (Transvaal), B Venter (OFS), P Hendriks (Transvaal); J Stransky (Western Province), J Roux (Transvaal); O Du Randt (OFS), J Allan (Natal), B Swart (Transvaal), J Ackermann (N Transvaal), M Andrews (Natal), F Pienaar (Transvaal), G Teichman (Natal), R Kruger (N Transvaal). Replacements: L Strydom (Transvaal) for Ackermann 37; J van der Westhuizen (N Transvaal) for Roux 57.

AUSTRALIA: M Burke (NSW); B Tune (Queensland), D Herbert (Queensland), P Howard (ACT), D Campese (NSW); S Bowen (NSW), G Gregan (ACT); D Crowley (Queensland), M Foley (Queensland), A Heath (NSW), J Welborne (NSW), J Eales (Queensland), M Brial (NSW), T Gavin (NSW), D Wilson (Queensland). Replacement: J Roff (ACT) for Burke 55.

Referee: D Stirling (Ireland).