Uneven Wales made to pay
June 5, 2010
Springbok skipper John Smit shakes hands with Wales hooker Matthew Rees © Getty Images
We've been here before. A sea of red, clenched fists, howls of joy. It's all reminiscent of Wales' comebacks against Scotland and France during the Six Nations, two helter-skelter finishes that will be part of highlights packages for years to come.
Both comebacks ran a smooth coat of gloss over the cracks in Wales' armoury, the lineout, ball retention and an ability to make possession count. Now, with South Africa parading the Prince William Cup once again following their thrilling 34-31 victory in Cardiff, Wales must begin to act upon their best intentions. For the opening 20 minutes the home side, in opening up a 16-3 lead, played their best rugby since 2008. Their lineout ran like clockwork, Bradley Davies and Jamie Roberts punched holes at will and James Hook, with an interception try and a drop-goal, and Stephen Jones took the points when they were on offer.
It was calm, precise and would have delighted Warren Gatland prior to their two-Test tour of New Zealand, which kicks off on June 19. For some, proof that Wales can still play this way would have been just reward for this fixture, which has brought with it plenty of baggage. The main problem for the coaching team before their date with the All Blacks, is that pressure undoes any good work.
With their tails up Wales are a direct, physical side brimming with talent. Five metres from their line on a pressure throw, at a scrum under their posts or when contesting a vital restart, they are a neurotic mess. Matthew Rees squandered both attacking and defensive possession at the lineout when moments earlier he had been firing the ball straight and true, and while he is a superb athlete in the loose and a destructive scrummager this aspect of his game needs to improve. Until Wales can guarantee that they are making the most of their primary sources of possession they will continue to be vulnerable.
In the plus column goes Sam Warburton, who while lacking the creativity of Martyn Williams, was a constant threat in the loose and on the floor. Joining him is Davies, who was a boisterous presence throughout. Also winger Tom Prydie, whose try was a great personal moment, and barring tiredness he could get a welcome baptism of fire in New Zealand.
The return of Mike Phillips has been a welcome fillip and the scrum-half was again warrior-like in his commitment. His partnership with Stephen Jones will be vital on tour and there will be able back-up from Lee Byrne, who showed flashes of his commanding best.
While the All Blacks will not be quaking in their boots at Wales' imminent arrival, they will be anxious about the strength in depth possessed by the Springboks. The side which triumphed in Cardiff has been dismissed in many quarters as second rate, and while there were precious few in green who could claim to be a regular there was a whole lot of quality on show.
The build-up to the game was marred by an ugly spat between the South African Rugby Union (SARU) and Premier Rugby over the availability of Bath's Butch James, but his eventual withdrawal opened the door for Juan de Jongh to make an impact at No.12. Since Jean de Villiers' defection to Munster the position has been a worry for the Boks, and after shaking off an early hammering from Jamie Roberts, de Jongh showed his winning combination of creativity and power for an excellent try.
The back-row, cobbled together with the Bulls' Dewald Potgieter, Stormer Francois Louw and Toulon's Joe van Niekerk, was compact and aggressive. Potgieter also scored a first Test try and with Louw and van Niekerk getting their hands dirty he provided excellent support as a ball carrier. Danie Rossouw, one of the more experienced campaigners, was a colossus in the second-row.
With Fourie du Preez, unquestionably a cut above, set for a long lay-off after surgery the most heartening performance from a South African perspective was that of scrum-half Ricky Januarie.
A popular figure in Wales after a winning spell with the Ospreys, he took his chance well despite having played second fiddle at the Stormers this season. A poster boy for Mark Twain's maxim that, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog", Januarie was a genuine threat at the breakdown and looked after his attacking duties well enough to suggest the jersey will be his against France in Cape Town next weekend if he can cut down on his penalty rate.
South Africa can wade into a seemingly inexhaustible player pool. Wales must manage their tiny one. The loss of Gethin Jenkins' work at the breakdown and the willing invention of Shane Williams was keenly felt in Cardiff, but there will be few words of sympathy when they land in New Zealand. You get the feeling that Gatland's looking forward to it, but are his players?
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.