Rugby Union: All Black and red letter day

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The Independent Online
THERE have been too many false dawns in the recent history of Welsh rugby to believe that all ills have been banished in one heroic burst, but, after the horrors of the summer, Graham Henry has restored some faith to a rugby nation down on its luck. But for a penalty try awarded by the referee, Stuart Dickinson, just before half-time, Wales might have turned the improbable into the impossible as South Africa reeled before an unexpected onslaught and battered their heads against an immovable red wall.

"We showed a lot of passion, guts and commitment," the new Wales coach said. "All the important things which made sure the South Africans were not able to play their game. The nation will be proud of them, but...." The emphasis on the final word was telling. The New Zealander did not relish the loss of composure when victory was in sight.

Only in the 81st minute with a try fashioned by Joost van der Westhuizen and scored by Andre Venter did South Africa get their noses in front. The rest was all Wales, an early try by Gareth Thomas proving the platform for a series of punishing penalties by Neil Jenkins.

The measure of their courage could be felt at the final whistle. Sagging Welsh bodies were uplifted by a standing ovation from a crowd who had come more out of loyalty to the 25-1 outsiders than in expectation of victory. A streaker, long-haired and bearded, did not help the Welsh cause. Leading 20-17 at the time, the delay broke concentration and allowed South Africa extra time to assert a desperate authority.

"For 0-80 minutes we had a massive defence and put them under pressure," Rob Howley, the Welsh captain said. "But we were in a position to defeat the world champions out there and down in the dressing-room you have 22 very disappointed players."

By this morning, a proper sense of perspective should have pervaded the Welsh camp, whose chances had been measured by the headline in the Western Mail. "96-13: Never again", it read. When Mark Andrews, winning his 50th cap, led South Africa out so emphatically he had reached the half-way line before his teammates had emerged from the tunnel, it seemed he might play Wales on his own. Wales' delayed arrival on to the pitch, for both halves, smacked of Henry's New Zealand brain ticking.

Even several miles to the east of their spiritual home - what remains of it, at least - the Welsh voices gave full vent to their emotions. The effect was galvanising. Henry's gameplan, apart from crossing toes and fingers, was to keep the South African side on their heels, force them into making mistakes and losing their discipline.

Complacency is a creeping, paralysing, force and, somewhere along the line, the South Africans had clearly begun to believe their own publicity. "We caught them with their pants down" as Henry put it. Talk of a 14- match winning streak gurgled in the throats of supporters draped in the multi-coloured flag of the rainbow nation who had thronged Wembley way in the confident expectation of another exhibition match. They got one, though the exhibitionists wore the red of Wales not the green and yellow of the world champions.

The statistics of the Welsh defiance should be carefully clocked for posterity. The first try was greeted with a mischievous cheer, the tail of lion tweaked. But when the clock ticked to 3.25 and 53 seconds at the exact moment the ball was dissecting the posts for a 14-0 lead, it was more manna from heaven than bread of heaven. Miracles were clearly in the dank air over the beleaguered twin towers.

In the front row of the stand, edging nervously to the front of his seat, sat Henry, his face as impassive as stone, his thoughts goodness knows where. In front of him a nation linked to him only by a shared passion for an oval ball was responding to his blend of hard-headed coaching and side-of-the-mouth humour. On a pounds 1m contract for five years, his own standing as the saviour - the 14th, as it happens - of Welsh rugby hung precariously in the balance. But somewhere between 28 July, when he took up his post, and 14 November, his first international, the Aucklander unearthed a pride and a fury long since consigned to misty valleys and long memories. He picked a side on character, and character they gave him, for 80 minutes.

Once South Africa had agreed to aid the cause with a steady stream of handling errors, the genie was loose. Tackles were slipped with ease, bouncing balls were picked off by the men in red and, in Shane Howarth, the New Zealander turned Taff, Wales had the most incisive runner on the field. Craig Quinnell set the tone in the early moments with a bullocking run at the heart of the South African midfield, brother Scott steamrollered Gary Teichmann. The rest took their cue from the family. Wales lost, but refound an infinitely more precious commodity. "We put the self-respect and dignity back into Welsh rugby today," Howley, the proud captain, said. The job now is to keep it there.