First half a glimpse of Wallaby future
The result didn't go the way the Wallabies wanted, or even needed, but the first twenty or thirty minutes of the Test Match at Loftus at the weekend did give us a window into the type of game Michael Cheika wants his side to play.
The up-tempo, quick-passing in traffic, offload and support game they played in the first half was a deliberate ploy to move the big Springbok forwards around early, as well as hoping to exert early scoreboard pressure.
Early on the intent was very clear. From an attacking line-out on the Boks' 22-metre, centre Samu Kerevi ran an out-in line back at Morne Steyn and broke the tackle with Michael Hooper and Will Genia in support. Hooper found himself tangled up with Francois Louw and went to ground, but Genia had the ball presented for him by the time he got to the ruck.
From the next phase, Quade Cooper took the pass in centre-field and a pause in this moment reveals the Wallabies resolve to play this game on the front foot.
As Cooper takes the ball, he's looking back inside, where he has Dane Haylett-Petty trailing to his right, and Haylett-Petty in turn has Rob Simmons on his inside and Sean McMahon on his outside. Adam Coleman is trailing Cooper on his left, and Bernard Foley is left again in the traditional 12 channel.
Cooper goes to the line and draws Steyn into the tackle, and with Teboho Mohoje trying to work out whether to come in on Cooper, or hold back at take one of the three runners now coming at him.
Haylett-Petty veered back to the right, but McMahon kept coming on the hard inside line – only for Cooper's pass to go behind the flank.
It was a missed opportunity, as Mahoje over-read the support lines and stayed with Haylett-Petty despite Pieter-Steph du Toit coming across in cover. McMahon, had the ball found him, would've been through for sure and certain.
Hooper was able to clean up the loose ball, and the Wallabies had to reset. But again, this taking the ball to the line with multiple supports was not something we've seen a lot of in 2016.
The Wallabies' close passing and support running in traffic in the first half was the best we've seen this season, and is absolutely the first sign of new skills coach Mick Byrne's influence.
The famed former All Blacks skills coach has in recent weeks suggested that Rugby Union could learn a lot from Australian Rules football, and the AFL Grand Final in Melbourne at the weekend showed the skill of players of that game moving the ball at pace, and often in traffic, to find teammates.
Byrne came from an AFL background himself, and applied this exact train of thought to the All Blacks during his 11-year stint that netted two World Cups and a trophy cabinet so full New Zealand Rugby might have to extend their Wellington headquarters.
The lead-up to Scott Sio's try provided multiple examples of this new approach and application.
Cooper took the ball into contact to on the left-hand side of the field outside the South African 22-metre, and with McMahon and Coleman in close proximity. Coleman provided the cleanout and McMahon the muscle, and suddenly the tackle disintegrated, with Cooper allowed to play on.
Three passes infield found Hooper who was able to make a 15-metre break back toward the outside before linking up with Reece Hodge. Hodge had a crack down the outside and was pulled down only a metre or two short. McMahon picked up the fast ball, and set up the next ruck, with Genia sending it to Foley, who had Stephen Moore looping back on the inside toward the posts.
Genia throws a wider pass to Sekope Kepu standing just inside the left upright, and he draws Jesse Kriel, the only immediate defender, before offloading to Sio to score under the posts.
That one passage included half a dozen or so passes, support runners all over the place, required just three phases and made thirty metres before attacking the line. It was a great sign that the Wallabies do indeed have the skills to play the kind of game they so desire.
And yes, there's plenty still to work on, most notably their line-out and the complete lack of breakdown presence in the second half which effectively let the Boks back into the game.
But there, before our bleary eyes, at an insane hour on Sunday morning, was a clear sign pointing to how the Wallabies want to play.
The addition of Reece Hodge to the side has given the Wallabies a new element, too. With a new ability to take long-range shots at goal, the Wallabies were hoping to create scoreboard pressure from anywhere within the vicinity of halfway.
And who knows how the game would have played if Hodge landed those three penalty attempts?
The first, a 65-metre monster just skimmed under the cross bar, while the other two from within the tramlines on either side of the field were also outside the fifty metre range. It's just another feather in the cap of a player who, this time last year, was still getting around in the NRC, and was yet to make his Super Rugby debut. What a future he has in the game.
NRC set for thrilling conclusion
Speaking of Australia's National Rugby Championship, a cracking final round is all set to play out this coming weekend, where three of the four games will have a bearing on the semifinals.
NSW Country and the Sydney Rays have all but sewn up the home grounf afcantage in the play-offs, but behind them Perth Spirit and Melbourne Rising will be under huge pressure from the Canberra Vikings and Western Sydney Rams to hold onto the remaining top four places for the knockout stage.
Well worth checking out if you get a chance.
By Brett McKay
* Brett McKay is an Australian rugby writer and commentator, who has sat through more Bledisloe Cup and World Cup Final losses than any human should have to endure, and is desperately hoping for a change of luck soon. For regular musings on rugby, sport, and all manner of life's trivialities, you'll find Brett on Twitter at @BMcSport