Wallabies coach Michael Cheika says his side will need to give away fewer "simple opportunities" in their upcoming Rugby Championship games after losing to South Africa, 35-17 in Johannesburg on Sunday morning but was adamant a pivotal yellow card against prop Taniela Tupou was the "wrong call".
This was not the 53-8 drubbing Australia suffered in their last Johannesburg outing 11 years ago but the Wallabies will leave Ellis Park with a sense of missed opportunity from the five-tries-to-two defeat.
While they were up against a weakened Springboks outfit, the home side looked anything but under strength in what was an enthralling contest for much of the night.
The second half was a particularly uphill battle with James Slipper (concussion) having an early exit and Taniela Tupou yellow-carded for a no-arms tackle, leaving rookie Harry Johnson-Holmes facing a baptism of fire in the pack.
Cheika was adamant that call, which was one of the pivotal moments in the match, was off the mark.
"I make it as the wrong call," he said.
"The other guy should have been sent to the sin bin.
"The fourth official said he focused on the green player who came in with a shoulder charge.
"Taniela then came in after that to get him, with his arms wrapped at the right height. I’m not sure if big contact is a penalty these days but that’s a wrong decision."
Two Springbok tries in 10 minutes, one during the carding, put the momentum squarely in the hosts’ hands and that was where things stayed for much of the second half.
Australia took some time to settle into the game, but they showed plenty of positive signs in their first Test of 2019 and looked the better side to half-time, despite having coughed up some chances.
"It's difficult to use the word happy when you lose a Test match," Cheika said.
"I believe we showed a lot of good signs tonight, I know that people may not see that in the result but for us, compared to, for what we've been building on, it's the first time we've put some of the things we’re doing out on the field, and I know that the commitment to playing that way, both in attack and defence is there and that it will build as the season goes on.
"We know there's some big things later on in the year.
"I suppose the No. 1 thing for us now is to get ready and get back to our home ground in Brisbane where we’ve got a great opportunity to go out there to build on what we did today.
"Perhaps not give away simple opportunities we gave away and convert some more of our own."
The Wallabies left 17 potential points on the table in the first half, with a Lukhan Salakaia-Loto try disallowed for a forward pass in the lead-up, a Dane Haylett-Petty knock-on over the line and a decision from Michael Hooper to opt for a scrum instead of a straightforward penalty kick.
Hooper defended his decision post-match.
"To walk you through my thinking there, defending a midfield scrum five metres out from your own line is the hardest place to defend from," he said.
"Numerically in the backs it is super hard to D up.
"We won the scrum, we just had to get it out and it’s a try. If you’re a gambling man that’s a small bet."
Where the Wallabies had dominated the first half possession and territory, the Springboks brought the statistics into their favour in he final 40 and it paid off on the scoreboard.
Nic White, who played 65 minutes, looked like a more developed version of the player who headed overseas in 2015, Tom Banks handled his first Test at fullback well and Isi Naisarani showed promise on debut.
Both Cheika and Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus had plenty of praise for the Aussie scrumhalf on his Test return.
"I thought White was very good, he marshalled the troops well," Cheika said.
"We had a lot of quick ball, which he was arranging pretty well with the forwards and making good passing choices. I really rated the way he played the game, he had a couple of nice kicks and also a lot of pressure in defence, put a lot of pressure from where he defended."
South Africa’s pace on the edges had looked on paper like it would be a problem for the Wallabies and that was all they needed to create a score for Herschel Jantjies in the 12th minute.
Winger Sbu Nkosi burned Slipper on the edge and offloaded to Jantjies just before Banks could wrap him up, putting his teammate in open space.
Bernard Foley slotted a penalty in the 17th minute and the Wallabies looked like they were over just two minutes later, after a trademark Samu Kerevi break set up Salakaia-Loto, but Kerevi’s pass was ruled forward.
Luck appeared to be turning for Australia when Springboks centre Andre Esterhuizen was binned for a high tackle on Banks but it mattered little with lock Lood de Jager crossing two minutes later.
Banks had stopped another near-certain try after Pieter-Steph du Toit duped the Wallabies defence with a chip over the top, forcing Banks into a cover tackle on scrumhalf Jantjies, before they scored off a pick-and-go.
The Wallabies looked to their rolling maul to create a try in the 28th minute and though they couldn’t drive over the line, they were able to quickly spread the ball to the right hand side, opening up space for Dane Haylett-Petty to power over the line.
Haylett-Petty fell agonisingly short of a double and the opportunity to put the Wallabies in front just minutes later, chasing down a Foley chip, but the winger knocked it on over the line.
The second half quickly turned away from Australia, who were left on the back foot deep in South African territory when Tupou was sent off.
It took Nkosi two minutes to find a defensive overlap, stretching the margin to 11 points.
Australia made a host of replacements just after that score, with Tevita Kuridrani and Banks coming off, Kurtley Beale coming onto fullback, To’omua to 12 and Kerevi pushing out to 13.
Herschel Jantjies put South Africa well and truly in the box seat in the 62nd minute, picking the ball up from the base of a ruck and beating To’omua on the outside for his second of the night.
The Wallabies kept digging in and found some reward for their effort with a 72nd-minute Foley try, set up by a strong solo effort from Kurtley Beale to break the South African line, before a Cobus Reinach try sealed the game.
Beale had a strong cameo, replacing Banks in the 65th minute, and Cheika said it was not yet settled where he best fit in the 23 as they look towards Argentina.
"I don't really have a vision of what his role is going forward," he said.
"He might get a start, he might finish, just depends how the selectors get together and decide to pick the team."
Slipper wasn’t the only injury concern for the Wallabies with Jordan Uelese’s first Test in nearly two years ended after just three minutes with concussion as well.
Erasmus said there was still room for his team to improve ahead of their second Rugby Championship Test against New Zealand.
"We know that this was not a world-class performance, not even close," he said.
"The way we played today won’t get us into World Cup playoffs. There was some rustiness and all our combinations weren’t settled. We are still happy with the win."
The Wallabies travel to Brisbane on Sunday ahead of their second Test against Argentina next weekend while the Springboks take on New Zealand in Wellington.
South Africa 35
Tries: H Jantjies 2, Nkosi, de Jager, Reinach
Cons: E Jantjies 5
Yellow Cards: Esterhuizen (21’)
Tries: Haylett-Petty, Foley
Cons: Foley 2
Yellow Cards: Tupou (54’)