Wales run Springboks close
November 8, 2008
South Africa's JP Pietersen steals the ball from Wales' Shane Williams
© Getty Images
World champions South Africa recorded their 10th successive victory over Wales - but only after surviving a major scare at the Millennium Stadium.
Wales trailed by 17 points approaching the hour-mark, yet four James Hook penalties gave the 6 Nations title holders hope of a famous win. They had not beaten the Springboks since 1999, and ultimately paid a hefty price for conceding 10 points during the opening nine minutes - and handing South Africa an interception try, Hook, almost Wales' hero, also played the role of villain, as his first touch after replacing Stephen Jones was to find Jean de Villiers, rather than his team-mate Jamie Roberts.
De Villiers sprinted from inside his own half to score, giving South Africa the degree of breathing space they required. His fellow centre Adrian Jacobs claimed an early try, while fly-half Ruan Pienaar converted both touchdowns and kicked two penalties.
Debutant wing Leigh Halfpennny also booted a penalty for Wales, which highlighted an impressive display by the 19-year-old Cardiff Blues prospect. Halfpenny's Blues colleague, No. 8 Andy Powell, also shone, but Wales struggled to impose their kicking game on the Springboks, who triumphed despite never hitting top gear.
Wales, who were crowned kings of Europe eight months ago, had high hopes against a Springboks side that finished bottom in this season's Tri-Nations tournament. But the visitors stunned Wales with their early burst.
They went ahead after six minutes following superb approach work by back-row pair Pierre Spies and Schalk Burger that disrupted Wales defensively, enabling skipper John Smit to launch an initial charge before Jacobs touched down. Pienaar converted, then slotted a 35-metre penalty to leave Wales already in danger of chasing the game.
Wales were not noticeably rocked by making such a poor start though, and they enjoyed a spell of territorial dominance, yet South Africa continued to look by far the more dangerous side with ball in hand.
Debutant Powell finally broke through South Africa's first line of defence - it took Wales 21 minutes to make considerable gain-line headway - but referee Alain Rolland then penalised the home team. Fly-half Stephen Jones sent a 24th-minute penalty chance wide, and with South Africa enjoying the cushion of a 10-point advantage, Wales could not exert a consistent foothold.
But they finally opened their account 11 minutes before the break - and from an unlikely source. With Jones receiving treatment after being on the receiving end of a hefty Springboks challenge, Halfpenny stepped up to boot a 35-metre penalty and give his team a timely lift.
Wales though, should have fallen further behind when South Africa again attempted to cut them open from deep. Pienaar appeared to have done all the hard work, but as he dived over the line he lost possession under pressure from Tom Shanklin and a lively Halfpenny. Pienaar then restored South Africa's 10-point advantage with a second successful penalty, before Halfpenny narrowly missed a long-range effort.
Wales, despite their deficit, still had an attacking spark about them, but they needed to string together an error-free passage of play. There was much more organisation about Wales in the second period, and coach Warren Gatland teed up the closing 30 minutes by sending on replacement half-backs Hook and Dwayne Peel.
But Hook's first touch proved catastrophic from a Welsh perspective, as his intended pass to Roberts drifted straight to de Villiers, who effortlessly collected the gift. Pienaar converted, then Hook kicked a penalty, but Wales still trailed 20-6 with barely a quarter of the match remaining.
A second Hook penalty reduced the gap to 11 points, and Wales sensed they could claw their way back. And that sense of optimism increased with 18 minutes left after Springboks substitute Jaque Fourie was sin-binned for killing possession. Hook kicked the resulting penalty, and Wales knew they had to make a temporary one-man advantage count as South Africa displayed increasing signs of frustration.
A bloodied Smit then left the action to be replaced by Brian Mujati, and Wales found themselves engaged in a prolonged period of defending as South Africa kept possession at close quarters. Another Hook penalty, which bounced over off the post, made it 20-15, setting up a frenzied final seven minutes.
And it was all Wales, as they camped inside South Africa's 22 looking for a foothold to launch a try-scoring attack. They had to remain patient, but South Africa called on all their experience to stay ahead and ensure Wales were denied a Tri-Nations scalp they so badly wanted.
Wales: Byrne, Halfpenny, Shanklin, Roberts, S. Williams, S. Jones, Cooper, Jenkins, Rees, A. Jones, A. Jones, Evans, R. Jones, M. Williams, Powell.
Replacements: Hook for S. Jones (51), Peel for Cooper (51), Gough for Evans (66). Not Used: Hibbard, D. Jones, D. Jones, Andrew.
South Africa: Jantjes, Pietersen, Jacobs, de Villiers, Habana, Pienaar, du Preez, Mtawarira, du Plessis, Smit, Botha, Matfield, Burger, Smith, Spies.
Replacements: Steyn for Jacobs (60), Fourie for de Villiers (61), Januarie for du Preez (61), Steenkamp for Mtawarira (76), Bekker for Botha (41), Mujati for Smith (68), Kankowski for Spies (50).
Sin Bin: Fourie (62).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)