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Australia overturned a narrow halftime deficit and survived a late South African onslaught to notch up their first victory of the Rugby Championship with a 23-18 win in Brisbane that snapped a four-match losing streak.
Two Matt Toomua penalties after the break added to the centre's first-half try and one from his captain Michael Hooper to give the Wallabies a morale-boosting victory on Saturday after back-to-back losses to Ireland in June and the All Blacks last month.
They were made to work hard for it in greasy conditions at Lang Park, however, and needed a huge defensive effort to prevent the Springboks from scoring what could have been a match-winning try in the final few minutes.
"It was tight," said Hooper, who led a side without late withdrawals David Pocock, Israel Folau and Adam Coleman.
"We knew it would be that way. We knew they would come out firing. It was a good game, back and forth a lot. I'm really proud of the guys' resilience."
Tries from hooker Bongi Mbonambi and winger Makazole Mapimpi helped to give South Africa an 18-17 lead at halftime but they were held scoreless after the break to slump to a second successive defeat after a loss to Argentina last time out.
"We made it tough for ourselves by not taking our opportunities again," said skipper Siya Kolisi.
"Australia played really well and they took their opportunities. At this level you have to take the opportunities when you get them."
South Africa started slowly in the manner that has become a habit this season and Australia were a converted try up inside two minutes after skipper Hooper went over from close range.
Springboks flyhalf Elton Jantjies soon cut the deficit with a penalty, however, and the visitors were in front after 14 minutes when Mbonambi scored off the back of a rolling maul from a lineout.
Mapimpi took the lead to 15-7 when he crossed in the corner off a long cut-out pass from scrumhalf Faf de Klerk but just after the half-hour mark the Springboks let the hosts back into the game with a self-inflicted wound.
Having just bundled Australia winger Jack Maddocks into touch, they botched a long throw from a defensive lineout, allowing Toomua to pounce on the ball and touch down under the posts.
Toomua converted his own try but another scrum penalty allowed Jantjies to punish the Australians with three more points from the tee.
With the halftime hooter having sounded, Wallabies centre Reece Hodge unleashed one of his penalty bombs from inside his own half to make it a one-point game at the break.
Australia made the brighter start to the second half but more than 10 minutes of incessant attack sparked by a brilliant run from scrumhalf Will Genia produced only three points from a Toomua penalty.
That was enough to put the Wallabies back in front, however, and he added a second after 68 minutes to extend the lead to five points.
The victory never looked secure though, and the crowd at a half-full Lang Park breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when the television official adjudged the ball had been knocked on in the lead up to what would have been a late South African try.