Fierce, resilient: Wallabies have fans dreaming again

Level-headed, fierce and resilient, three words that could easily be inscribed in stone beside Michael Hooper's name, and in a milestone night where he led the Wallabies for a record 60th time, his teammates lifted to his level and had fans dreaming again as they defeated the Springboks 30-17 in Brisbane and moved to No.3 on the World Rugby rankings.

Like it's been so often during Hooper's career as captain, the win didn't come easy, but in a huge occasion for the 29-year-old, the Wallabies took their game to another level, withstood a hectic 20-minute period in which the Springboks dominated the game and took the lead, to come out on top, win the Mandela Plate and go back-to-back for the first time under Wallabies coach Dave Rennie.

In a match that see-sawed between franticness and composure, there were standout performances across the park. Len Ikitau and Marika Koroibete try scoring doubles and in Koroibete's case sealing the Wallabies win; Quade Cooper and his maturity with the ball but also his steadfastness in defence; Taniela Tupou's rampaging running, and like always, Hooper in another match where he led not just with his words but with his actions.

The leading tackler of the night, making a huge 20 from 20 attempts, Hooper replicated a brick wall in defence, refusing to the let the Springboks through, but it was his work at the breakdown in the final minutes that will be added to his endless highlight reel.

Pinned down in their own five metres and with only minutes left on the clock, the Boks looked threatening and almost certain to convert a Wallabies mistake, but as it so normally goes with Hooper on the field, he was quick to pounce on an isolated Springboks player, setting himself up over the ball and refused to be budged as he won Australia a crucial penalty.

It was emblematic of a night in which the Wallabies remained steadfast under pressure, retained a level-headedness they haven't in the past and refused to let their heads drop when mistakes began to riddle their game.

"We went for the full 80 minutes. The criticism for us in a couple of games this year was that we'd knock off after 40 and allow teams through a 10-20-minute period to really hurt us," Michael Hooper said of his team's effort post-match. "I think tonight, if you look at the game at a whole we were on for the majority of it, so it's really pleasing."

Their best defensive performance for some time, the Wallabies made 96 percent of their tackles with Hooper leading the stats as usual, but in a surprising turn, Cooper demonstrated the work he's put in, with the second most tackles of the night, making 14. It was their defensive maul though that rightly found the spotlight.

Determined to take on the Springboks' attacking strength, the Wallabies struggled with their timing early on with Matt Phillip conceding multiple penalties, but their determination soon earned dividends, nullifying the Boks' weapon on several occasions and forcing the South Africans to try their hand out wide where their ball skills just simply weren't up to the task.

"Obviously Dan McKellar is the most excited about that [maul defence], he's done an excellent job with that pack," Rennie said after the win. "As I said during the week, we made some system errors, individual errors and we got punished against a good side last week, so that was impressive tonight.

"That's an area that guys like Taniela have been working really hard on and you could see that we barred up and defended that quite well.

"It's good reward, there's a huge amount of work going on from Matt Taylor and the defensive group and we know where the Springboks are coming, they're going to come through the middle. I think we tackled well, we really had a presence post tackle and turned over a bit of pill from counter rucking, so a great defensive effort tonight."

Despite conceding several penalties early, it was the Wallabies who would get points on the board first with Ikitau bagging his first of the night after Tupou made one of his trade mark tackle busts to put the Wallabies on the front foot. Ten minutes later, he'd be over again after they executed a slick backline move that saw Samu Kerevi draw in several Boks defenders providing Ikitau the space to receive the ball outwide from Koroibete and got it down in the corner.

Playing just two games together, Ikitau and Kerevi have molded themselves into a dynamic centre pairing with both players producing starch in defence while Ikitau's skillset will likely see him retain his position over the returning Hunter Paisami. It's depth the Wallabies have lacked for some time.

"It's awesome, isn't it. He [Ikitau] was with us last year but just didn't get a minute of footy, he went away and worked really hard, made good shifts in his game, played a lot of footy for the Brumbies, now to really come in and establish himself," Rennie said of Ikitau.

"We're creating some real depth there aren't we, and I think Lennie's been excellent, he's got a great skillset; really good feet, a big defender, a big left foot. He's going well, he's getting better and better."

Meanwhile in his first opportunity to start this series, Tupou was an immense presence. He was key in the Wallabies maul defence, played a mammoth 75 minutes and produced a sly flick pass to Koroibete that saw the wing fly over the line.

"In terms of Big Nella, it was a complete game for him, rolling out 75 minutes there for a tight head and impacting the game for that 75 minutes is pretty impressive the world over, so good on him," Hooper said. "He's been working hard on his game too, off the seams and everything that goes into being a player, so professionally he's getting better for sure."

The Wallabies ill-discipline shouldn't be papered over, however, with the team conceding a lopsided 17-9 penalty count which kept the Boks in the game and gave them a sniff early in the second half. A yellow card to Lachie Swinton will also have to be looked at after the enforcer was sent off for a dangerous tackle when he failed to lower his body or wrap his arms as he charged shoulder first into Duane Vermulen's shoulder at a restart.

Perhaps most disappointing for the Wallabies tonight was their failure under the high ball. Another of the Springboks key attacking weapons, the Wallabies had been astute in shutting the threat down last week, but struggled to on several occasions to hold onto the ball or create a true contest in the air.

Despite these issues, there's more than a glimmer of hope after a night where there were so many overwhelming positives, where we witnessed a maturity that has been missing from this young pack, and with just two years until the World Cup, the Wallabies have given their fans permission to dream again.