Rugby World Cup 1999
Wales survive opening match jitters
October 1, 1999
Centre Mark Taylor slides in to score for Wales
© Getty Images
At last the appointed hour came around and the rugby world was able to sigh with collective relief, "Thank God it's Friday". While it was supposedly a normal day, an entire nation had downed tools to watch fifteen of their countrymen go to work on turning a dream into reality.
After the reconstruction work Graham Henry has completed on the Welsh side you couldn't help imagine that had he been in charge of the Millennium Stadium construction it would have been completed months ago. Still at last the hard hats were replaced by fifteen hard-nosed Welshmen and their hard-headed kiwi coach who eventually got the job done.
Prop Mauricio Reggiardo's eyeballing tactics on Peter Rogers from six inches just moments before kick-off suggested that Argentina had not come here to lie down and die. So it proved as they put up a spirited but limited fight. In the end it was the Valley Boys who won the game but not before being given a fright and it was they who were happier to hear the final whistle as the visitors came back from 23-9 down to finish just five points adrift.
The rain was falling steadily as Argentina's Gonzalo Quesada finally got events under way kicking deep to Scott Quinnell but only after a slight delay to allow the legion of choral singers off the pitch.
Three minutes into the game and Wales should have been three points to the good after the much vaunted Argentine front-row had stood up in a scrum. Unfortunately Neil Jenkins showed that an occasion of this magnitude could affect even his ice-cool nerves by pushing the kick wide.
Still Wales enjoyed the early pressure as Argentina were repeatedly forced to kick possession away given the aggressive nature of home defence. Shane Howarth showed how solid he is under the high ball, and when Scott Gibbs ran into Lisandro Arbizu, the Argentine skipper did not, and could not, get up for several minutes and took time out on the sidelines to recover.
Fifteen minutes into the game and Argentine frustrations boiled over. A fracas involving several players ended with their Saracen prop Roberto Grau being shown the first yellow card of the tournament. This incident should have led indirectly to the game's first try as Wales turned the screw with excellent field position. Scott Quinnell made good yards from a scrum but after off loading to Shane Howarth the fullback was stopped just shy of the Argentine line.
As it was, Quesada opened RWC99 scoring with a twenty minute penalty when Wales encroached at a ruck. Although the blue and whites defended heroically, especially in the mid-field, it was wholly against the run of play and did nothing to calm Welsh nerves.
The visitors, having weathered the early storm, took heart. A long flowing movement from their own 22 could have led to a try minutes later. When Quesada kicked another three-pointer after twenty five minutes the only Welshmen not to panic were probably the fifteen on the pitch.
Jenkins pulled three points back for Henry's men after winger Octavio Bartolucci had slapped down a pass heading for Dafydd James and trouble. Wales were repeatedly grateful to the deadly combination of Argentine indiscretions and Paddy O'Brien's whistle. The two came together a minute later to give Jenkins the chance to tie the scores with his second penalty and he made no mistake.
Quesada looked to have given the visitors a half-time lead with a hefty penalty from inside his own half but this Welsh side are made of sterner stuff. From a mid-field ruck the ball was worked right where it found hooker Garin Jenkins lurking. His sprint up the wing was halted when he slipped but the Welsh support kept possession of the ball. When it came back again Colin Charvis found himself in some space but still had plenty of work to do from fifteen yards out. For once the visitors' defence failed them, Gonzalo Longo won't be ordering this video nasty, and the big number six crossed the line under the posts.
Jenkins doesn't miss those and Wales went in at halftime with a 13-9 lead.
Whatever it was that Graham Henry growled at his players during the half time break seemed to have the desired effect. The Welsh started the second as they had the first and put the visitors under immediate pressure. Chris Wyatt went close after he was found on the left wing, although in all honesty Wyatt was probably to be found on the wing a bit more often than was strictly necessary.
Unlike during the first forty, Welsh enterprise was duly rewarded. Shane Howarth recycled a kick deep in his own half. The ball was moved left and Dafydd James was allowed the freedom of his wing before finding his opposite winger Gareth Thomas inside who selflessly fed supporting centre Mark Taylor for a memorable try under the posts. Jenkins extended the advantage to eleven points.
By the time Jason Jones-Hughes made his debut in the 58th minute the Argentine defence was looking weary as might be expected when mostly part-timers take on full professionals. To their credit they managed the next three scores, all penalties from the boot of Quesada, who else.
With eight minutes left to play, and having dominated proceedings the bulk of the match, the Welsh lead was back to a meagre five points. The Welsh responded but Wyatt surely selected the wrong option when he ignored unmarked James outside him and had his pass to Scott Quinnell intercepted five yards from the Argentine line.
Argentina were then unlucky not to be awarded the lineout three yards from the Welsh line. That danger was averted, Wyatt reverted to his second row duties in the lineout, and James' brave catch ensured defence was turned to attack. An attack that would have benefitted greatly if the various forwards had allowed their backs some privacy to do their job properly.
The Match ended in somewhat typical fashion, another Welsh attack being repelled by some brave-hearted defence. Too many times the Welsh over-elaborated in mid-field when the ball was crying out for some width.
If Graham Henry and his boyos were attempting to dampen the hysteria in Wales over their World Cup prospects they are going about things the right way. Still, the result was more important than the manner in which it was achieved.