Better everywhere but the scoreboard
November 13, 2010
George North scores his second for Wales © Getty Images
On September 11, 2011, Wales take on South Africa at Westpac Stadium in Wellington in the opening game of their tilt at the Rugby World Cup.
Following Saturday's 29-25 loss to the Springboks in Cardiff they know exactly where they stand - the margin between the sides was plain for all to see. Wales were the better side in every department. They just weren't the better side for long enough.
After disappearing down the tunnel at the break two tries to the good, 17-9 up and with over 60% possession, Warren Gatland's side were poised for only a second win over South Africa in their history and revenge for a three-point loss back in June that served as a demoralising wake-up call prior to a demanding tour of New Zealand.
Once the second-half was underway and South Africa decided to play, doubt loomed. The doubt was followed quickly by the insecurity that besets all northern hemisphere contenders, bar the great England sides, when they are in touching distance of beating one of the game's heavyweights.
Wales have less than 12 months to better these demons. Aside from the 10 minute spell in which Willem Alberts and the magnificent Victor Matfield rode a wave of belligerent forward play and lackadaisical Welsh defence to the try-line, the home side produced some top-drawer rugby. South Africa had no answer for the invention presented by James Hook, the renewed vigour of Stephen Jones or the youthful exuberance of George North. The Springboks made 84 more tackles than Wales - almost double the number completed by the hosts.
The result spoiled the day for North, but a star may have been born. Two tries against South Africa on debut for an 18-year-old only seven games into his pro-career? Easy. He barely appeared to notice that he wasn't on the training paddock with the Scarlets.
Gatland's willingness to pick young players has been criticised in recent months due to his seemingly-baseless selection of Tom Prydie but it is worth remembering that under his tutelage Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny, Bradley Davies and Sam Warburton have all graduated to international level with aplomb. Prydie's time may yet come but in North, and the promising Toby Faletau, he may have a hit on his hands.
The last five minutes was torture for another disappointing crowd at the Millennium Stadium as Wales pounded away only to be repelled by some awesome tackling and admirable organisation. It is important now that the focus is on making it across the finish line when in position to do so - not on the ever-growing losing streak they possess against South Africa and New Zealand.
South Africa are two from two on tour but could so easily be staring down the barrel after consecutive defeats. They deserved to beat a dire Ireland side last weekend but nearly bottled it after a raft of misjudged changes and can count themselves equally lucky that Wales opted to take a rest for the first 10 minutes of the second-half.
Across the bars of St Mary Street tonight the name of Steve Walsh will be dirt after another questionable display. It was a big day for the naturalised Australian official after some time away from the top table but both sets of fans will have taken umbrage with a number of his decisions. North's opener was widely protested due to perceived crossing and the officials missed a litany of infringements in the phases leading up to the South African tries.
Blaming the referee is a popular past-time in rugby but to do so would serve little good in this instance. Wales know the exact period in which the game slipped away and it was largely of their own making. South Africa will cherish the same 10 minutes and use it to mask what could have been a video nasty in training on Monday.
Next up for Wales are a physical Fiji side before the latest bout of posturing that accompanies the arrival of the All Blacks and their 57-year streak. South Africa are off to Scotland and then to Twickenham, where on the evidence of England's showing against Australia they could be in for a tough afternoon.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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