Mortlock record as old rivalry hits new pitch

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The Independent Online

The occasion was historic: the contest for the first Nelson Mandela Trophy, between Australia and South Africa. So too was the setting: the first indoor rugby Test, at Melbourne's new Colonial Stadium, with its sliding roof and shifting grass. But it was the game itself that was a revelation; a complete opposite to the tryless, defensive war of attrition these teams fought in their World Cup semi-final in Cardiff last November.

The occasion was historic: the contest for the first Nelson Mandela Trophy, between Australia and South Africa. So too was the setting: the first indoor rugby Test, at Melbourne's new Colonial Stadium, with its sliding roof and shifting grass. But it was the game itself that was a revelation; a complete opposite to the tryless, defensive war of attrition these teams fought in their World Cup semi-final in Cardiff last November.

In that game, the score inched ahead on penalties, and was decided in Australia's favour by a 48-metre drop goal. In this one, played in perfectly still, warm conditions, four tries were scored in the first 35 minutes, three of them by a Springbok team determined to reinvent themselves, and was decided in a scorefest which saw the Australians cross the South African line four times in the final 15 minutes.

Their score of 44-23 was the Wallabies' highest against South Africa. The 29 points amassed by winger Stirling Mortlock was a record by any player against the Springboks. The former mark of 27 was jointly held by Rob Andrew and then Jonny Wilkinson, in England's upset victory in South Africa last month. As such, it is a measure of the state of the South African team that they are now the fine print in the record books, rather than the benchmark for opponents. "I would say not," the Wallaby coach, Rod McQueen, replied, when asked if his team's performance would get them past the All Blacks in the second match of the Tri-Nations series, next Saturday.

Yesterday's opposition remain a work in progress. At the insistence of their coach, Nick Mallett, the risk-averse South Africans of the 20th century have become the all-passing, all-running advent- urers of the 21st, emphasised by the selection of Werner Swanepoel at half-back over the incumbent, Joost van der West-huizen, and epitomised by a 25-metre cut-out pass thrown infield by winger Breyton Paulse in the frantic scramble for possession after a turnover off a Wallaby break in midfield.

From any position, in almost any circumstance, the South Africans would pass and run. Fortune favoured them. Their first try came from a brilliantly executed one-two between Swanepoel and the second-rower Rassie Erasmus, which saw the half-back accelerate untouched across the line. Paulse downed the next two, an intercept of a Rod Kafer pass, deep in the Springbok half, and as the first hand on a loose ball over the try-line after Wallabies Steve Larkham and Chris Latham collided trying to field a kick downfield.

The South Africans led 20-12, then 23-17 at half-time. If the World Cup semi-final was a game for the purist, this was a game calculated to arouse the interest of even the most suspicious Melbourne sports fan, in a city long deemed enemy territory for both rugby codes.

"The World Cup was a very different occasion," the Australian captain, John Eales, said. "Tonight, there seemed to be the attitude from both teams to run the ball and get out there. In the World Cup, guys were playing on what they had to lose, rather than what you had to gain."

The game the South Africans are trying to play is one the Wallabies have been playing through the Nineties. Their confidence in each other is implicit and unshakeable. At one point, chasing down a grubber kick along the sideline, full-back Latham, the man of the match, grabbed the ball, turned in mid-air and threw an apparently blind pass to winger Joe Roff, behind the touchline. Roff, in turn, evaded two opponents to kick safely for touch.

Throughout the first half, and for the 20 minutes after the resumption, the Wallabies had repeatedly broken through the first line of the South African defence, only to be pulled up.

Larkham picked the lock in the 67th minute, dummying to outside-centre Daniel Herbert, then striding through the space left by Herbert's over-eager opposite number, Robbie Fleck, for the try that gave Australia the lead for the first time. From there, South Africa's resistance was repeatedly breached.

"You're making a lot of tackles and getting tireder and tireder," Mallett said in defence of his players. "It was the Wallabies continuing with their game plan that wore us down. It was disappointing because it was so positive for so long."

In the ensuing quarter-hour, Toutai Kefu, Jason Little and Mortlock scored, and Mallett again found his vision questioned. "You just have to look at the way the Australians played, the success they've had," he said. "It's definitely the way we are going to have to move."

South Africa: P Montgomery; B Paulse, R Fleck (De wet Barry 71), J Mulder, T Delport (C Williams 78); L Koen, W Swanepoel (J van der Westhuizen 76); R Kempson (O le Roux 60), C Marais (J Smit 71), C Visagie, A van der Berg, K Otto (C Krige 71), R Erasmus, A Vos (capt), A Venter.

Australia: C Latham; S Mortlock, D Herbert, R Kafer (J Little 40), J Roff; S Larkham, G Gregan (S Cordingley 79); R Harry, M Foley (J Paul 41), F Dyson (G Panoho 63), D Giffin, J Eales (capt), M Connors, J Williams (T Kefu 55), D Wilson (T Jacques 76).

Referee: P O'Brien (NZ).

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