South Africa survive Wales scare
September 11, 2011
Frans Steyn opened the scoring for the Boks
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Reigning champions South Africa edged Wales 17-16 in a thriller in Wellington on Sunday.
Substitute Francois Hougaard's try 15 minutes from time, converted by Morne Steyn, got world champions South Africa out of jail and left Wales inconsolable. Wales were left to reflect on a missed James Hook penalty, a failed Rhys Priestland drop-goal attempt from in front of the posts - and a controversial first-half moment.
Hook's 14th-minute penalty looked to have gone over, even though it sailed above the post, but the touch judges did not award it and South Africa enjoyed a huge let-off. It was rough justice on a Wales team who had heroes everywhere, from try-scorer Toby Faletau to strong-running centre Jamie Roberts, combative scrum-half Mike Phillips and skipper Sam Warburton, who made a remarkable 20 tackles despite taking a heavy blow to his head during the second period.
Hook added three penalties and a conversion, while full-back Frans Steyn also crossed for the Springboks, with fly-half Morne Steyn slotting two conversions and a penalty. But South Africa will need to show a considerable improvement as the tournament unfolds, or their dream of becoming the first team to win successive World Cups will vanish sooner rather than later.
Wales, who have only beaten South Africa once in 26 attempts, now have to regroup ahead of next Sunday's crucial clash against Samoa in Hamilton. Victory over the South Sea Islanders would keep them on course for the quarter-finals, but defeat could herald a pool stage exit for the fourth time in seven World Cups.
Wales made a nightmare start in testing windy conditions, finding themselves under sustained early pressure as South Africa kept possession through several phases. And it took less than three minutes for the Welsh defence to crack.
Warburton, who became the youngest captain in Rugby World Cup history, initially missed a tackle on Jaque Fourie before South Africa spun the ball wide and full-back Frans Steyn powered over. Morne Steyn effortlessly added the touchline conversion, but Wales showed signs of a quick recovery when Hook slotted a penalty before they established promising territorial control with lock Luke Charteris and flanker Dan Lydiate threatening ball-carriers.
Hook had a second penalty attempt after 15 minutes, awarded when Springboks wing JP Pietersen high-tackled Phillips, but although the kick appeared to go over above a post, the touch judges kept their flags down.
Hook was mystified by the decision, but play continued and a long-range Morne Steyn penalty put South Africa 10-3 ahead after 18 minutes. Wales continued to enjoy a plentiful supply of ball, yet their attacking ambitions appeared to revolve mainly around wing Shane Williams, who was inevitably marked closely by the Springboks.
South Africa suffered an injury blow midway through the first-half when centre Jean de Villiers went off nursing a rib problem to be replaced by former Bath back Butch James, who slotted in alongside Fourie. The game had lost some of its initial sparkle, yet a second successful Hook penalty narrowed Wales' deficit and gently reminded South Africa they were still firmly in the contest.
Springboks lock Victor Matfield, who went into the game with a hamstring niggle, limped off just four minutes after the restart, handing South Africa a possible second-row headache with Bakkies Botha also injured.
Wales continued to press, and they ended another spell of pressure with Hook completing his penalty hat-trick that narrowed the gap to one point. And it got better for Wales in the 54th minute when a brilliant Priestland pass sent No.8 Faletau over for his first Wales touchdown.
Referee Wayne Barnes required confirmation from Australian television match official Matt Goddard before the try was awarded, and then Hook's successful conversion made it 16-10 to leave Wales firmly in the driving seat. Wales had put themselves into a position to blow Pool D wide open, and South Africa were at sixes and sevens as their opponents looked quicker in thought and deed.
But South Africa's much-vaunted strength in reserve had the desired effect when Hougaard scorched over for a try with his first touch. Morne Steyn added the extras, making it 17-16 to South Africa, yet Wales should have regained the lead when Priestland had a point blank drop-goal attempt that he rifled wide.
It was a bad miss by the Scarlets player, yet Wales then gained a penalty chance when Hougaard infringed. Hook, though, could not find the target and South Africa retained their slim advantage. And South Africa, with their forwards moving up a gear, then closed out the game.
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