Cooper steered the ball unerringly through the poles from wide on the right to take his personal tally to 23 points – with a return of eight from eight – while the Boks will rue four missed kicks on a day when they outscored the Wallabies by three tries to one.
Australia rarely threatened their opponent’s line while the Boks claimed their scores from a powerful maul, and although they were not quite at their most clinical, they seemed to have claimed victory by clawing back an eight-point halftime deficit to take the lead in the final 10 minutes.
A Bok scrum on the wide left as the last seconds ebbed away seemed to hold little danger until a powerful Aussie shove disrupted the ball enough for replacement Wallaby scrumhalf Nic White to win a penalty (for not releasing by stranded replacement No 8 Jasper Wiese) for Cooper to seal a memorable Wallaby return.
It was heart-breaking.
The Springboks began well – reclaiming three of their own box kicks and stealing a lineout – and drew first blood with a fifth minute penalty when Lukhanyo Am’s attempt at a turnover was thwarted by sealing.
Pollard’s kick was levelled three minutes later by Cooper – from another ruck offence – and there was a second exchange of penalties (the Boks getting theirs from a Wallaby scrum collapse) before a first-half turning point in the 16th minute.
The Springboks had looked comfortable, but a Siya Kolisi yellow card for a dangerous tackle on Tom Banks upset the balance. Kolisi halted the Wallaby fullback in his tracks, but turned and lifted the player’s legs above the horizontal and although the No 15 was in no danger, Kolisi was dismissed for 10 minutes.
Within two of those, right wing Andrew Kellaway had crossed halfway out on the right for Australia. after cutting back inside against an uncharacteristically disorganised Springbok defence, with Cooper converting to give the Wallabies the lead for the first time.
The Springboks prevented any further score while a man down and looked to have claimed a try of their own after 26 minutes to level the scores. Faf de Klerk’s grubber through into the in-goal bounced up for Am but he lost the ball as he attempted to ground it under Australian pressure.
They didn’t have to wait long to register the first try however. A succession of lineout drives in the right-hand corner, the third illegally stopped, led to the yellow carding of lock Matt Philip. From the next lineout, a beautifully constructed maul trundled five metres for Bok hooker Bongi Mbonambi to drop onto the line.
Pollard’s conversion attempt drifted wide and two more Cooper penalty goals – the second for a scrum offence by the Boks just before the break – gave the Australians an eight-point lead at the interval and present a real challenge for the world champions’ composure.
There was another exchange of penalties at the start of the second half – Australia’s coming after Willie le Roux had been sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on (as he attempted to intercept) – before the Boks closed the gap to a single point with a second maul try.
It was another example of irresistible power – this time with replacement hooker Malcolm Marx in the driving seat – and, with Pollard converting from wide on the left, the lead had been reduced to a single point.
Cooper kicked a long range, tricky penalty goal from 45 metres to open up the lead to four points with 18 minutes remaining but the Boks regained the lead for the first time since the first quarter with just eight minutes remaining when Marx claimed a second maul try.
Replacement Damian Willemse couldn’t add the conversion – after two penalty and a conversion miss by Pollard – and with the lead limited to a single point the game was poised for the final penalty drama.
Springboks 26 (11) – Tries: Bongi Mbonambi, Malcolm Marx (2). Conversion: Handre Pollard. Penalty goals: Pollard (3).
Australia 28 (19) – Try: Andrew Kellaway. Conversion: Quade Cooper. Penalty goals: Cooper (7).