Australia edges South Africa 11-9 in quarterfinal
Updated: October 09, 2011, 03:22
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand(AP) Winger James O'Connor landed a 71st-minute penalty as Australia rallied to beat South Africa 11-9 in an intense Rugby World Cup quarterfinal on Sunday, ending the title defense of an aging Springboks team and keeping the Wallabies on track to become the first team to win the title three times.
O'Connor's 30-meter goal retrieved the lead for Australia, which had led 8-3 at halftime with a try to its captain James Horwill but which had fallen behind under relentless pressure through the second half.
Springboks flyhalf Morne Steyn kicked a penalty and a dropped goal to give South Africa a 9-8 lead after 59 minutes, a sniff of victory, before O'Connor rewarded a valiant Wallabies defensive performance with the winning goal.
"It was a huge effort,'' Horwill said. "We had some real issues there in the second half. I'm really proud of the way the guys fought it, dug in.
"We knew that we had to stick in, our defense would win these big games. We had to trust that.''
Australia soaked up unrelenting pressure from the Springboks throughout the second half as it sought to preserve first its 8-3 lead, then an 8-6 lead when Steyn kicked a 54th minute penalty. Even when it fell behind by a point to Steyn's 40-meter dropped goal, the will, the courage and the composure of the young Australian team didn't break.
They rallied. They forced themselves into South African territory for one of a few occasions in the second half and when the Springboks committed an error of discipline under pressure, the Wallabies snatched their chance for victory.
Even at the bitter end of a match which was gripping from start to finish, Australia made the tackles, forced the turnovers, won the inches of ground which turned the match in its favor and ended South Africa's World Cup reign.
The match likely ends the careers of many of the Springboks' veterans who strove so hard on Sunday to keep their World Cup defense alive: the captain John Smit who played 49 minutes in his 110th test on Sunday and his 17th straight World Cup match.
"It makes it hurt that much more,'' Smit said. "A couple of missed opportunities. We did enough to win this game but we just couldn't get there.
"It was a ding dong battle between two good teams and to go out like that by a few points and by penalty kicks, Australia did well under pressure. Both teams really put it to each other.''
Perhaps most prominent for South Africa was the giant flanker Schalk Burger, who carried the ball into contact fearlessly throughout the match, and who made desperate tackles and fought for the supply of loose ball through which the Springboks hoped to apply its game of pressure and territory.
Flanker David Pocock equally played a massive role in Australia's victory, forcing a steady succession of turnovers from a South African pack which was willing, physical but sometimes sluggish in the breakdown contest. It was in that area more than any other that the age of the Springboks team manifested itself.
Australia's young backline stars, Quade Cooper, Digby Ioane and Will Genia weren't always able to shine in a match played mostly in their own half and under crushing pressure. Cooper had his worst match of the tournament, but the inside backs still performed their tasks on defense, in the receipt of kicks and as tacklers, with outstanding courage.
In a sense, the match saw the passing of the former champion, the aging Springboks, and the arrival of the young Australians who came of age in a test of individual character.
Cooper wasn't the crowd favorite or the gamebreaker but lasted the match. Genia played with typical composure and control but it was the Australian forwards who set the platform in the critical fight for breakdown possession.
Cooper's every touch was booed by a crowd almost evenly divided by Springboks and Wallabies supporters but also containing a great many New Zealanders who dislike the brash, New Zealand-born flyhalf. He made a faltering beginning, dropping the first kick he tried to field from Steyn and his early kicks for territory lacked distance or accuracy.
But he recovered his poise to put a searching kick behind the South African defense in the 11th minute which bounced into touch 10 meters out. South Africa won the lineout, untidily, and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez found the willing Burger to take the ball heavily into contact.
It was almost immediately dislodged, ejected from a forming breakdown and was recovered by No. 8 Radike Samo, who fed center Pat McCabe near the posts. McCabe twisted in the tackle and handed off to Horwill, who crashed over near the left upright.
O'Connor missed a handy conversion but was successful four minutes later with a penalty when Habana handled the ball at a breakdown near the posts.
Steyn attempted only three penalties in the first half, the first from 50 meters out in the 27th minute which drifted just wide of the posts and the last, with time up, from 55 meters and the left side of halfway. Steyn's second penalty attempt from 24 meters was successful and cut Australia's halftime margin to five.
South Africa began the second half anchored in the Australian half, working the ball through phases, probing for a defensive weakness. It finally found one when center Jean de Villiers stepped through a tackle and passed to fullback Patrick Lambie, who strode over but the Springboks were called back for a forward pass.
The Springboks built pressure relentlessly but Australia's defense was equal to the threat. Eventually, South Africa was forced to take points from a Steyn penalty and then to resort to the dropped goal.
"We went in at halftime saying we needed to hold onto the ball, get through phases,'' Smit said. "We did that, we were patient. A couple of missed opportunities - a drop kick, a try with Fourie, that forward pass to Paddy - we did enough to win this game but weren't accurate enough.''
Fourie came close to scoring but spilled the ball near the line, again as a result of taut defense, as Australia saw off threat after threat. Having defended its line fearlessly and for so long, the Wallabies were equally happy to take the penalty when it came, giving them their second win over South Africa in World Cup knockout games.
Australia 11 (James Horwill try; James O'Connor 3 penalties), South Africa 9 (Morne Steyn 2 penalties, dropped goal). HT: 8-3.