Boks hold on for nerve-wracking win
A try from Francois Hougaard with 15 minutes to go averted disaster and secured the Springboks a fortunate 17-16 win over Wales in their World Cup opening match at the Regional Stadium in Wellington on Sunday.
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The relief on the Springbok faces and the dejection on the Welsh ones after the match summed it all up – this was a game which so easily could have gone the other way, with Wales playing most of the rugby, dictating most of the game, but coming second where it matters: on the scoreboard.
Make no mistake, Wales had good reason to feel disappointed. They had two opportunities to win it in the last 10 minutes, but fullback James Hook missed an angled penalty with nine minutes left and Rhys Priestland, the Welsh flyhalf, also missed a drop-goal attempt from almost in front of the posts.
Somehow the Boks were able to wriggle their way back into the Welsh half, and spent the last five minutes there, thus making sure of the match points.
The Boks scored two tries to one but spent most of the match defending against a Welsh team that dominated the forward battle once the early storm of a quick South African start had dissipated.
Let it be said, that while the Bok defensive system held out, they do carry too many players who don’t tackle, and although they got out of jail in this game, there is a lot for coach Peter de Villiers to think about as he looks ahead to the rest of the tournament.
Many Bok fans will be hoping that De Villiers would have noted the improvement in the Bok game once the substitutions were made, with Bismarck du Plessis and Hougaard playing a massive part in the turn-around.
Is it time for the old guard to make way? Some would say it is an indisputable fact, and if the coach has his country at heart, he has to stop messing about with sentimental selections and choose the best team.
It took way too long for De Villiers and his fellow coaches to do what was obvious to most observers by introducing Du Plessis to the battle. When Du Plessis and Hougaard came on, the Boks were trailing 16-10 and looked doomed to an ignominious opening-round defeat.
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But with Fourie du Preez taking over the captaincy reins, as Victor Matfield was also off the field, and Du Plessis joining Heinrich Brussow in being all over the Welsh when the Six Nations team had the ball, Hougaard bringing that little bit of extra elusiveness when in possession, the Boks steadied themselves and fought back.
Du Preez had a tough call to make when his team was given a penalty opportunity in the 63rd minute. He elected to kick for the corner, and the Boks controlled the possession and then stretched the play across the field, showing good patience before eventually a hole opened up for Hougaard to burst through off a short pass in front of the posts for a try similar to the one he scored for the Bulls against the Stormers in last year’s Super 14 final.
The conversion put the Boks back in front of a game which they had led for most of the way, and after that it was a matter of keeping their composure and relying on their experience to get them across the line.
Among the substitutes who excelled when they came on was Willem Alberts, with the big Sharks flanker carrying the ball strongly and bringing the thrust that had been lacking earlier.
There were a lot of Bok players who were disturbingly poor, and No 8 Pierre Spies produced a performance that can best be described as anonymous.
Spies excelled in some of the home Tri-Nations test matches when his team was going forward, but he is not the same player when his team is going backwards, which is what the Boks were in this game.
The game was not without controversy, and the international media are sure to ask questions about the Hook penalty that was waved down by the assistant referees but which looked good on the television replay.
Hook was clearly unhappy and remonstrated with referee Wayne Barnes, asking for the decision to be referred to the TMO for a second look, but it never happened.
In a game as close as this one was, surely the right thing to do would have been for the TMO to be asked to make a judgement.
Not that the game looked like being close early on, and the Boks looked like they were going to lay down a strong marker when they started impressively to put the Welsh under the kosh.
The Boks certainly showed a lot of intent in the first five minutes, and a great long flat pass from Morne Steyn gave big fullback Frans Steyn the momentum he needed as he ran through Shane Williams and then contemptuously brushed off James Hook for a spectacular try in the corner after four minutes.
But it quickly became evident that all was not well with the Boks as Matfield tapped an untidy ball back in a lineout and the Welsh kicked it through. Spies was adjudged to have gone off his feet and Hook pulled three points back after 10 minutes.
The Boks looked vulnerable when the Welsh kicked the ball through, they allowed too many balls to bounce, and they weren’t accurate with their own kicking game.
Gradually the Welsh started to dictate terms, and the build-up words of Wales coach Warren Gatland, who had said the Boks don’t play any rugby, started to look prophetic as it became a contest between the Welsh attack and the Bok defence.
The Welsh backrow was particularly magnificent, but the problems for the Boks started at the lineouts, their usual strength, with Smit not his usual accurate self with his throwing, and the Boks clearly on this occasion missing Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith in the formation.
Hook missed an easily kickable penalty in the 13th minute, and the Boks made him pay for the miss by being the next team to score through a Steyn penalty in the 18th.
Yet although they led by seven points, the Boks were having to make too many tackles, and their poor performance was compounded by the loss of two crucial experienced players in the form of Jean de Villiers (in the first half) and Matfield (early in the second) to injury.
The Welsh fought back strongly on the scoreboard as well as on the field, and after trailing 10-6 at the break, they took the lead in the third quarter through a Hook penalty and then a try to No 8 Toby Faletau that was the product of a period of sustained pressure during which the Welsh wasted a couple of scoring opportunities.
South Africa - Tries: Francois Steyn, Francois Hougaard. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2). Penalty: Steyn.
Wales - Try: Toby Faletau. Conversion: James Hook. Penalties: Hook (2).