Bruised Wallabies belted in Pretoria
South Africa's captain Jean de Villiers is challenged by Australia's Kurtley Beale. Photo: Reuters
It's been a tough week for the Wallabies. A lot tougher than it should have been, even considering it doesn't get much harder than playing the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld, a venue where they have never had joy in a Test previously and still haven't as of yesterday morning's 31-8 defeat.
In such a week, with all the usual challenges of preparing for a big Test in South Africa, the Wallabies also had to contend with troubles from within – from afar – in the form of their injured fly-half, Quade Cooper. While it contributed to rugby gaining column inches in the last week of September, the biggest week of their two most direct sporting rivals' year, it wasn't in a way that was remotely useful.
Now Cooper, in airing his views about the Wallabies setup, either entirely misread the sentiments of his team mates, and rugby supporters alike, or doesn't care. The latter scenario particularly doesn't go down well among comrades in a combat code. A sniff of selfishness and you lose the room very quickly, and it generally doesn't come back in a hurry.
Whether it affected the Wallabies' performance on the day or not, it couldn't help but affect their attitude to Cooper. International sport is tough enough as it is without distractions, particularly in such a hostile environment, and there is no game more away from home than the Springboks in Pretoria. Twickenham may be further afield but it ain't as far removed from comfort as Loftus is.
I'm not sure if it's the general hostility of the crowd, the attitude around the streets or the altitude that gets you first, but they each eat away in their own insidious manner. Even if you get them on the scoreboard, it won't be before a toll is exacted. You have to plan for the challenge, confront it and, if you are to succeed, overcome it. And that's all before you even consider the 15 men in green trying to stop you.
Considering how exposed the Wallabies are at the moment through injury, it was quite amazing that the advantage we held against the Springboks was in experience. Johan Goosen for example, was playing his first run-on Test at fly-half and I'm sure it won't be his last.
His selection, and that of other emerging youngsters from within their ranks, some from their world under 20 championship team, was a big departure from the sanctuary of established players like Morné Steyn, whose conservative but accurate game has put many great teams to the sword in this very graveyard.
I have often wondered why the Springboks play such a conservative game as through their large and domineering forwards and their fast and skilful backs, a comprehensive game would proffer an almost insurmountable challenge. Certainly, defending a fast-paced and wide-ranging game makes it even more difficult for your blood to transport the already thinner oxygen around your ailing limbs. For if you are not acclimatised to altitude, it may be the burn in your lungs that gets you before the lethargy in your limbs or vice versa, but something will get you.
Despite the contribution of the young guys, it was an old stager who inflicted the mortal wounds on the Wallabies. Bryan Habana, who had been terribly out of sorts last year, exploited the space he loves so well and scored three tries as a result.
Speaking with former Wallaby flanker Gary Pearse over the weekend, he reminisced about his days playing club, state and Test rugby with the Ella brothers Mark, Glen and Gary. Their philosophy was to put the ball where their supporting players should be rather than where they necessarily were. They would have loved to have played with Habana as he has wonderful instincts for being in the right place at the right time.
If you didn't happen to be in the right place at the right time with the Ellas, however, they were remorseless in their demands, but as much of each other as of anyone else. You knew where you stood and it was accepted.
This is how challenge in and around a team environment should occur.
Further, Pearse recalled, that after one commentator marvelled at the magic of the alliteration Ella, Ella, Ella there was suddenly a lot less of Ella, Ella, Pearse, Ella. It actually became a lot more frequently, Ella, Ella, Ella . . . Pearse off . . .
This week as the Wallabies travel to a less daunting but no less challenging Rosario in Argentina, they will need all allies aligned to have any chance of finishing the inaugural Rugby Championship with one more victory.