Wales come up short again
June 5, 2010
Odwa Ndungane scores South Africa's opening try
© Getty Images
Wales came up agonisingly short against South Africa in their one-off showdown at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, losing out 34-31 on Saturday.
The home side, emboldened by recent silverware for the Ospreys and Cardiff Blues, were in search of only their second win over the Springboks in a rivalry dating back to 1906, but were guilty of squandering a 16-3 lead against weakened opposition. Only a week after the Bulls and Stormers contested a monumental Super 14 final in Soweto, the Boks rolled into town shorn of many of their leading lights, prickled by suggestions that they were easy prey and in the middle of a verbal war with Premier Rugby.
Premier Rugby won that battle, with Bath's Butch James withdrawn, but his team-mates won the war. Odwa Ndungane, Dewald Potgieter and James' replacement, Juan de Jongh, scored tries as Wales' early promise, and try from surprise call-up James Hook, wilted into a familiar pattern of mistakes and poor set-piece play. Tom Prydie added a try to his accolade as Wales' youngest-ever cap and Alun-Wyn Jones barrelled over in another grandstand finish, but it was too little, too late.
After a Six Nations characterised by flighty starts and ominous half-time deficits, Wales, to the delight of the crowd, set about their task in the opening moments with a sense of purpose and attention to the basics. Their lineout was solid, with Jonathan Thomas and Deiniol Jones adding thought to the process, and two free kicks from the first two scrums put the pack on the front foot.
De Jongh was welcomed to Test rugby by a clattering hit from Jamie Roberts and the shockwaves were soon felt by Frans Steyn, one of three overseas stars in the Springbok side along with Joe van Niekerk, BJ Botha and CJ van der Linde, who overcooked a raking kick to put the ball out on the full. Bradley Davies made inroads with every bustling carry and Sam Warburton, covering for the rested Martyn Williams, popped up with an early steal to settle the nerves.
Crucially, and unlike their messy spring efforts, Wales picked up points from their first two patient forays into South African territory, Stephen Jones' first penalty and Hook's well-judged drop-goal. The first loose play from the home side was duly punished by a Springboks side that, while lacking in possession, had shown a real edge in defence. Ruan Pienaar clipped over three points after a shoddy pass from Mike Phillips had put Jones under pressure.
The momentum swayed for only the briefest of moments and Wales soon fired off a 10-point salvo to take charge. From the kick-off the visitors conceded a soft penalty for offside, which was coolly slotted by Jones, and the first try followed seconds later. It was Hook, who two years ago coughed up the vital interception in Wales' most recent loss to the Boks, who pounced, reading the mind of John Smit and snatching a leaden pass from the air to score under the posts.
With confidence coursing through their veins, Wales committed the cardinal sin of neglecting to look after the ball. Pienaar took a bite out of the lead with a penalty and a catalogue of errors from the home side laid Ndungane's try on a platter. Prydie's confident boot downfield ran dead and Matthew Rees' Achilles heel, lineouts on the five metre line, provided the Boks with ball deep in Welsh territory.
After regaining the ball and firing an aimless clearance straight back to the opposition Wales were pegged back by debutant Gio Aplon and undone by a bouncing ball out wide, where Ndungane collected and beat the covering Prydie to the corner. Rees continued to buckle under pressure and with their lineout and restart not functioning to the levels seen only half an hour earlier; Pienaar added another penalty to close the gap to two at the break.
South Africa completed an 18-point swing in the opening moments of the second-half as Potgieter added a first Test try to his first start. The Bulls blindside's superb support play allowed him to charge up on the outside following Danie Rossouw's burst, beating Hook to the line with something to spare. Wales hit back with three points from Jones, but it should have been seven. A loose ball was snaffled by Warburton and with Leigh Halfpenny crying out for the simplest of run ins, South Africa cynically killed the possession. Referee Alan Lewis was uninterested in yellow, and Wales made do.
Steyn rolled out his 'rocket launcher' boot to extend South Africa's lead from just inside the Welsh half and the nail was well and truly hammered into the Welsh coffin by de Jongh with a superb individual score. Having carved the Waratahs apart in the Super 14 semi-finals he did the same to an increasingly ragged Wales, putting the foot on the gas to expose a dog leg. Wales scrapped for all they were worth but were repelled time and again by South Africa, whose status as a 'second string' was not apparent as the game wore on. Prydie went close to making history out wide before an intelligent quick tap by Jones saw Davies driven across the line but held up by de Jongh and Steyn. Prydie waited only moments more for his try after being put over in the corner from the resulting scrum.
The celebrations were short, with another penalty at the restart handing the Springboks a decisive advantage. Pienaar slotted the points but Wales were not finished, immediately hitting back through Jones. It was the pace of Halfpenny, snaffling a loose ball from under Zane Kirchner's nose on the Boks' 22, and the determination of Warburton's run for the line which crafted the score, and Jones was left with an easy finish after good support. There was to be no fairytale ending as Wales lost the ball in contact one last time, with a hush falling over the ground at Lewis' final whistle.