Wales (16) vs. South African (17), 11th Sept 2011
Gallant losers, once again. Probably a tag Wales won’t want despite the potential for puns in French language newspapers. An almost faultless performance from Le Pays de Galles – the right mix of adventurous and conservative. They were courageous and skillful – mixing up decent up-and-unders from James Hook, kicks to the corner from Rhys Priestland (aged 24, looks 14), bosh up the middle from Jamie Roberts, wings taking ball from Mike Phillips at scrum-half, forwards battering away. And yet, they lost! Why?Most obviously they lost because they missed a drop goal in front of sticks and a better than half chance penalty; lost three points due to a bizarre call by the touch judges early in the first half; and knocked-on possession five metres from the South African line. The second try was soft – a momentary defensive lapse in an otherwise very good performance. However, it’s never that simple is it? Some possible reasons:
1. South Africa probably were more dangerous with ball in hand – 40% possession, 42% territory, 2 tries to 1. The stats say something.
2. South Africa never committed to the rucks (and on the one occasion they did, they smashed Wales off the ball as they were ponderously arranging their next attack), meaning that they had a line of defence stretched across the pitch for nearly the whole game. Wales won turnovers but they had to work bloody hard with ball in hand.
3. The Springboks had a better kicking game, out of hand and for the posts – although Frans Steyn did make a mess a couple of times trying to field Welsh kicks, and Butch James messed up a couple of pokes to the corner, Steyn’s clearances were massive and Fourie Du Preez‘s box kicks were pretty useful too. Losing 60 metres just like that must have been disheartening.
4. When it came to the crunch, Wales lost their nerve. One point down, they lost some of the patience that they had had earlier in the contest, where they would batter away phase after phase until something came their way – eventually establishing for a glorious 10 minutes a superiority that had South Africa missing tackles and Welsh runners bursting through unstoppable. After that golden period came to end, they couldn’t rebuild and began to make crucial mistakes. Perhaps the kicks at goal show a loss of nerve too. As it often is in sport, a matter of psychology. South Africa too stubborn to lose, Wales not quite ready to win.
Hopefully, from a British/Northern Hemisphere point of view, Wales will take heart from this, defeat Samoa and Fiji (not something they’ve found easy in previous world cups!) and go into the group stage with that extra bit of steel about them. Definitely the most impressive of the European teams so far and the best game of the opening round of the 2011 tournament.