Rugby World Cup
'What if' Wales gone from Rugby World Cup but not forgotten
Greg Growden
October 17, 2015
What next for Gatland?

TWICKENHAM, London -- Wales are the first team to depart the cut-throat quarterfinal stage of this Rugby World Cup tournament, but that doesn't mean they will be among the first to be forgotten.

Their extraordinary courage, willpower, self-belief and refusal to let the most crippling of injury lists affect their stability will remain a highlight of this tournament, prompting a 'what if' scenario.

What if they hadn't lost eight players before and during the tournament of the ilk of Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb, Jonathan Davies and Co?

Would they have gone far further in this tournament?

On the basis of their quarterfinal performance, which involved numerous next-best players in the line-up, definitely so as they were the better and more resourceful team for most of this game, constantly thwarting a limited opposition who had not much more to their repertoire than repetitive bash-and-barge football.

The Springboks opted for the neanderthal one-out power game, and for so long Wales were able to counter that - showing great resolve in defence and repeatedly winning the breakdown ball.

South Africa played stereotypical physical Springboks rugby © Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Wales had to make 88 more tackles than South Africa, and very few missed the mark.

The Welsh back-row of Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau was dynamic, collectively being involved in 55 tackles, and lock Alun-Wyn Jones was also effective in strangling his opponents.

'Wales were the better side'
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But in the end the fatigue factor that lingers from the England and Australian matches, being stretched to the limits for so long and having to endlessly try to stop one charging Springboks forward after another - in particular Schalk Burger, who was clearly the South African go-to man - got to Wales. One blindside defensive blemish from a scrum in the Wales quarter, a clever backhand flick from Springboks No.8 Duane Vermeulen, and the smartest player on the field, South Africa captain and scrum-half Fourie du Preez, was off and away in the 75th minute to score the most heartbreaking of tries in the corner. This was South Africa at their opportunistic best, prompting their 'out-there' coach Heyneke Meyer to go absolutely berserk for a second or two in the grandstand as he realised he had escaped the knife for another week.

Fourie Du Preez scores the match-winning try © Paul Gilham/Getty Images

But if Meyer, who is only now overcoming the trauma of losing to Japan in the Boks' opening pool game, thinks he has found the game plan to win a third World Cup for his country, he is seriously having himself on.

South African backline manoeuvres were non-existent, and two of the best finishers in the game - their wingers Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen - were completely wasted; they may as well have built an on-field bonfire to keep themselves warm as they were mere observers.

The pleasure and pain of knockout rugby © Dan Mullan/Getty Images

No wonder Wales coach Warren Gatland was in such a morose mood after the game, realising how a team with obvious limitations had got away with it.

"I'm absolutely gutted," he said. "They got one chance and they took it. That's it."

South Africa 23-19 Wales (Australia only)
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Exactly.

"What more can I ask of my players. They all put their bodies on the line for the whole match. They emptied the tanks, and that's all we can ask of them."

Precisely.

Nothing more could be expected of them, and not surprisingly it took them some time to drag themselves off the turf after the loss as they were absolutely spent following the most exhausting and ultimately most exasperating of campaigns.

And sadly we won't see again in this tournament one of the most entertaining footballers going around in Wales No.10 Dan Biggar; he was a match and tournament standout. His judicious kicking, including wisely trying to put Willie le Roux under pressure early on, worked as the Springboks fullback did not seem too eager to put his body on the line.

Biggar also sensed there was enormous amount of space behind the South African defensive line, and one smart kick, which he regathered with little opposition, enabled him to put his scrumhalf Gareth Davies away.

And his theatrics when he prepares himself for a shot at goal - which include shakes, jigs, hair flicks and the like - are worth the price of ground admission. Watching the Springboks monotonously plod plod plod away at the opposition defensive line isn't.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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