The Blitzboks – who were without stand-in captain Philip Snyman (shoulder) – had last lost to the Aussies in 2014 in Hong Kong, and had beaten them 26-14 just last week in the Wellington Sevens Cup quarter-final.
But a leaky defence and the high tackle by Smith on star wing Henry Speight, which led to the yellow card, ended any chance of the South Africans snatching victory in the dying stages and a place in the final against New Zealand.
The Blitzboks’ defence had been outstanding in their first four matches in Sydney, but in the semi-final on Sunday morning, they uncharacteristically slipped a number of tackles.
That led directly to Australia’s opening try as Con Foley evaded tackle attempts by Seabelo Senatla, Juan de Jongh and Cheslin Kolbe – who are all normally excellent defenders – to sneak into the South African 22, and with the line broken, the hosts won a penalty at an ensuing breakdown and Lewis Holland dived over the line.
Senatla, Kolbe and Rosko Specman have been the go-to men on attack for the Blitzboks in Sydney, but they weren’t given any space in which to operate as the Australians employed a rush defence to close them down.
But just when the South Africans did manage to work their way into the Australian 22 before halftime, Carel du Preez dropped the ball cold on attack, and the home team quickly spread the ball wide to 18-year-old sensation Henry Hutchinson.
He cut the Blitzbok defence to shreds, and once he was brought to ground inside the opposition 22, the ball was recycled and James Stannard cleverly hacked the loose ruck ball forward before Du Preez could claim the ball and re-gathered to hand Australia a 12-0 halftime lead.
But the South Africans hit back quickly after the break, with the industrious Smith the hero as he won a breakdown penalty, took a quick tap and handed off three defenders to score in the right-hand corner. Kolbe slotted a brilliant conversion from close to the touchline, and the Blitzboks were right back in the match with around five minutes to go.
But both teams’ defence held firm, until the critical moment with just over a minute left on the clock when Speight roared down the right inside the South African 22, and Smith collared him around the neck. New Zealand referee Richard Kelly had no hesitation in dishing out a yellow card, and that put paid to any hopes of a Blitzbok victory.
Neil Powell’s team never gave up, though, and worked their way out of a difficult situation close to their line to get the ball back in the last seconds of the game. They managed to get inside the Australian half, but as they were down to six men, youngster Dylan Sage made the mistake of taking contact and setting up a ruck. There was no one to do the clean-out, and Australia won a penalty to advance to the final.
New Zealand lie in wait for Australia in the championship decider later on Sunday (10.04am SA time) after a thrilling 14-12 victory over Fiji in the first Cup semi-final.
The Blitzboks have a lot to play for in the third-place playoff against Fiji (9.35am SA time), as a victory will ensure that they remain on top of the World Rugby Sevens Series log.
Australia – Tries: Lewis Holland, James Stannard. Conversions: Stannard (1).
South Africa – Try: Seabelo Senatla. Conversion: Cheslin Kolbe (1)
Original source: Blitzboks let it slip in Sydney