Rugby Union: Exit the Dragon, defiantly

Wales give a Wembley display beyond their wildest dreams as the Springboks strike back at the last
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The Independent Online
Wales 20 South Africa 28

Tries: G Thomas Tries: Penalty try, Van der

Westhuizen, Venter

Cons: Smith 2 Pens: Jenkins 5 Pen: Smith 3

Half-time: 14-14 Attendance: 55,000

NEVER SURELY has there been a harder or more bitter pill to swallow than Andre Venter's match-winning try in the 80th minute of this fantastic match. With the Welsh seeking no more than the respectability of a 20 or 30-point defeat before- hand, they were - remarkably - leading the world champions, and by common consent the finest rugby machine on the planet, by three points with three minutes remaining.

It was then that Franco Smith kicked his second penalty to level the scores to the very obvious relief of a Springboks side who had been matched every pounding moment of the way by the Welsh. The tourists regrouped for one final attack through their magnificent scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen. He shot through a gap and offloaded the ball in the tackle to Johan Erasmus, who could not control the pass, but accidentally knocked it backwards into the path of his fellow flanker Venter, who crossed for the winning try and one of the cruellest cuts in the history of international rugby.

Charged with the almost suffocating dual responsibility of the restoration of a nation's pride and the salvation of the game in a country where, in rapid time, rugby has sunk from being a religion to a national embarrassment, Wales, despite the final score, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. If they were the losers on the day, they won the hearts of all who watched them, friend and foe alike and, much more important, they have revived hope and rekindled enthusiasm for the national obsession.

The pace of the contest was unrelenting but there were times during the opening half hour when it appeared that it was the Springboks who were the impoverished relations of world rugby. They were bamboozled in defence by the sheer invention and audacity of the Welsh runners and were sent reeling in attack as wave after wave of highly-charged Welshmen smashed into them in a series of thunderous collisions. The Welsh back-row defence, as effective as it was reckless, at times defied belief and even players of the calibre and experience of Gary Teichmann and Mark Andrews were reduced to stuttering wrecks.

The jitters also spread to the South African midfield, normally so secure but for much of the time a zone of blind panic. Not even Percy Montgomery escaped the collective mayhem and he was responsible through his failure to secure a high ball for the third of Neil Jenkins' beautifully struck penalties during that unbelievable half-hour when Wales moved into a 14- point lead. So rattled were the Springboks that they allowed themselves to be sucked infield by the relentless driving of the Welsh, in which the Quinnell brothers and Colin Charvis were irresistible.

This left acres of room for the Welsh backs to exploit. None profited more from the wide open spaces than the Welsh full-back, Shane Howarth, playing his first international for his adopted country. After a nervous start he exploded into the action with a glorious run providing a spectacular try for Gareth Thomas. From a ruck on the left Jenkins threw out a long, but perfectly measured pass to Mark Taylor. With Howarth making the extra man Thomas flew in at the corner. As valuable as Howarth's intervention was then it was no more important than his try-saving tackle later on the flying Pieter Rossouw.

Five points up after just eight minutes. Well, accidents do happen and this was surely a freak of nature, the merest blip on the Springboks' supremely well organised operation. Yet the tourists' attacks at this stage were uncharacteristically tentative. They had not expected the indignities put upon them by the Welsh and were clearly rattled. Not only that but the Welsh were growing in confidence. At every opportunity they took the game to the opposition and so active were their wings that they were in danger of burn out before half-time.

In other areas, too, the Welsh were imaginative and inventive. This was particularly so in the line-out, which the Welsh forwards, as a planned move, entered at the very last second. It was a tactic which seemed to unnerve the Springboks' champion forward, Andrews, and, having led his team out in splendid isolation to mark his 50th international, he cut a solitary figure as he left the field, substituted early in the second half.

Not once throughout the game did the Welsh relax their grip, nor did they ease the pressure on the Springboks, who were punished for every mistake by Jenkins, who kicked five penalties in the match.

But it takes a very special talent and spirit to reach the pinnacle achieved by the South Africans and, 14 points down, the one certainty was the ruthlessness of their response. It was indeed swift and deadly. They powered into the right-hand corner close to the Welsh line. They drove, they barged, they drove again, all the while moving closer to the Welsh line and more ominously, closer to the post. A couple of penalties were conceded and then the Welsh scrum, showing signs of strain, broke up - deliberately in the referee's opinion and he awarded a penalty try which Smith converted. From the kick-off Pieter Roussow was eventually brought down on the halfway line but was immediately back on his feet and a delightful inside pass to Van der Westhuizen put him in under the posts.

Within the space of two minutes then the Welsh lead, painstakingly compiled, had been wiped out. Their job now was to compose themselves and to hold on to half-time without suffering any further damage. They succeeded.

Whatever magic Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, worked in the few minutes available was simply a tiny extension of the miracle he has worked on the ailing Welsh game during his few months in charge. Not only did the Welsh refuse to yield an inch as the tempo and the ferocity of the match increased but they continued to produce the same skill and determination.

There were countless acts of heroism in defence, combined with dashing runs in attack, notably two from Dafydd James. Jenkins kicked two more penalties, the second giving the Welsh the three-point lead they held until those last fateful minutes. But, no matter the result, the Springboks and the rugby world will wake up this morning with a renewed respect for Welsh rugby.

Wales: S Howarth (Sale); G Thomas (Cardiff), M Taylor (Swansea), S Gibbs (Swansea), D James (Pontypridd); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); A Lewis (Cardiff), J Humphreys (Cardiff), C Anthony (Swansea), C Quinnell (Richmond), C Wyatt (Llanelli), C Charvis (Swansea), S Quinnell (Llanelli), M Williams (Pontypridd). Replacements: D Morris (Swansea) for Lewis, 48.

South Africa: P Montgomery (Western Province); S Terblanche (Boland), A Snyman (Blue Bulls), F Smith (Blue Bulls), P Rossouw (Western Province); H Honiball (Natal), J van der Westhuizen (Blue Bulls); R Kempson (Natal), J Dalton (Golden Lions), A Garvey (Natal), K Otto (Blue Bulls), M Andrews (Natal), J Erasmus (Free State), G Teichmann (Natal, capt), A Venter (Free State). Replacements: B Skinstad (Western Province) for Andrews, 46; O Le Roux (Natal) for Garvey, 46.

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).

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