Springboks claw back for a famous win
The bloody-mindedness that has characterised the Springboks under Victor Matfield over the past two weeks shone through as the world champions clawed their way back from a deficit to score a 29-25 win over Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday
In terms of the goal of clinching the Grand Slam, this was a significant step forward for the Boks, who now have matches against Scotland in Edinburgh next Saturday and then a rapidly improving England at Twickenham the week after that.
But it looked so unlikely for them in the first half as the Welsh, like they did in the Millennium Stadium 10-year commemorative game here in June, took a sizeable early lead and looked on the brink of battering the dazed Boks into meek submission.
All week we had heard from the Welsh media about how their young 18-year-old George North was the Welsh Jonah Lomu.
Well Lomu was a legend in the game, but he never scored a try against South Africa. Whether North goes on or not to emulate Lomu’s achievements is not something to be speculated on now, but he at least can say that it took him just five minutes to achieve what Lomu never achieved.
The Boks started off looking composed enough, and they turned over the Welsh from the kick-off and kicked the subsequent penalty that took them 3-0 ahead. It was the last time however that they were to hold any sort of lead until almost the hour mark.
And it was North who scored the first Welsh try, the home side winning a lineout and North then loping around to join the line near the centres and go through untouched near the posts.
Steyn then missed an opportunity he would normally be expected to slot as a Welsh forward went offside, and then came the try of the game as a Welsh counter-attack was started from inside their own 22.
It was wing Shane Williams who made the break when play reached halfway and then it was centre James Hook who rounded off as he took the inside pass.
The Boks were behind 14-3 – could lightning possibly strike in the same place twice, for after all, they faced a similar deficit early in the game they played here in the summer. The resurrection certainly didn’t start immediately, and for a long time the Boks took a terrible pounding in the scrums.
SCRUMMED OFF THE BALL
The experienced British and Irish Lion Gethin Jenkins had been forced to withdraw just before the game, but it made no difference to the Welsh scrumming power as the Boks were scrummed off the ball at their first put in.
It didn’t get any better after that, and up until the 35-minute mark it looked like being a really one-sided game as the Welsh dominated play and had the Bok defence scrambling.
Although Steyn drew back three points with a penalty, the Welsh immediately responded with another of their own from Stephen Jones for them to take a 17-6 lead.
The turning point so often comes in Bok matches shortly before halftime, however, and this was another of those games. It was during the five minutes just before the break that the Boks started keeping the ball as they launched wave after wave of attack to exert the pressure that had not been applied on the Welsh up to that point.
They were awarded a penalty by New Zealand referee Steve Walsh on the last move of the half, and the three pointer took them to the break just eight points adrift at 17-9 and they were back in the game.
After an initial Welsh attack that secured an early second-half penalty to restore their 11-point lead, it was all the Boks for the next 20 minutes.
BLOOD AND GUTS
Suddenly they weren’t even taking backward steps in the scrums anymore, and the pack that was so magnificent last week against Ireland suddenly rediscovered their mojo. It was real blood and guts stuff from the Boks, as if they had decided they just weren’t going to lose this game no matter what was thrown at them.
They had the self-belief to fight back, whereas the Welsh have to have their temperament questioned after once again enjoying much of the game against a southern hemisphere opponent but not being able to retain their intensity for the full 80 minutes.
To be fair to them, it was a supremely focused and physical Bok onslaught that they bowed to. And let it be said too, considering how much flak the Bok coaches take for substitutions, that this was a day when they at least got a couple right.
The one they got right was definitely Willem Alberts, who came on after halftime and produced a barn-storming 40 minutes that played a massive role in swinging the momentum in the South African favour.
Even before Alberts had rounded off a long period of sustained Bok pressure by just barging through the last couple of would-be tacklers to score, you could sense there had been a massive momentum switch.
The conversion brought the Boks to within one point of the Welsh – Steyn had earlier kicked a penalty – and suddenly the Welsh looked vulnerable and rattled.
Fittingly it was Matfield who went over for the try, with Wales just running out of defenders, that put the Boks back into the lead for the first time in 50 minutes – and they never relinquished it.
Wales did burst back though with a well-worked try that was sparked by an Alun-Wyn Jones chargedown of an attempted Bok clearance, with Welsh flyhalf Stephen Jones putting in a pinpoint cross-kick that enabled North to go over for his second try.
The conversion was missed to leave the Boks in the lead by a point, and then a Steyn penalty meant that the Welsh had to score a try to win in the last 12 minutes.,p>
As was the case here in June, the Welsh had the most of those final minutes, but some heroic Bok defence, in particular Gio Aplon who put in some great try-saving hits, kept the lines intact as they clinched a famous win.
Along with the good substitutions there were again some dubious ones too, and the Boks weren’t helped by the two lineout balls they lost soon after Chiliboy Ralepelle had replaced man-mountain Bismarck du Plessis in the final minutes.
But Ralepelle was one of the players who put in some big tackles in those minutes and Du Plessis has played a lot of rugby recently.
Wales - Tries: George North (2), James Hook. Conversions: Stephen Jones (2). Penalties: Jones (2).
South Africa - Try: Willem Alberts, Victor Matfield. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2). Penalties: Morne Steyn (5).