Rugby Union: Henry prepares stage for triumph of human spirit

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE men of Wales and South Africa had finished embracing each other, they turned east and headed for the darkness of the Wembley tunnel. It seemed all wrong. Given the game's shuddering intensity, and in particular the sudden, implacably cruel drama of its climax, surely they should have been heading for the spotlights, the red carpet, and the steps up to the Royal Box, the winners to receive a beribboned cup, with commemorative medals for both sides. Trumpets, too, and choirs, and even motorcades, and perhaps a national holiday. For that was how the game had been played -- winner take all, with every man's honour at stake.

And yet, for all the countless wonderful and unexpected elements of Wales' hectically courageous performance against the world champions, no one involved with the squad is likely to lose sight of the single most significant aspect of the afternoon, which was the fact that the Springbok players did exactly as much as they needed to win the match, and did it at precisely the right time. It is a habit that has characterised their current run of 15 consecutive Test victories, and it bespeaks a mental strength that enables them to overcome even such a significant challenge as they met from the men who, even in defeat, restored long-mislaid pride to the red shirt on Saturday.

Afterwards, Graham Henry, the new Wales coach, and Rob Howley, his captain, were swift to express regret that they had failed to turn the astonishing performance of the first half-hour, when they racked up 14 points without reply, into the nation's first victory over the Springboks. "We shut them down at the start, and we showed a lot of guts and commitment," Henry said. "I was proud of the players, and the nation should be, too. But we lacked a bit of maturity. If you're going to win these games, you need composure. We haven't had much practice at winning, and we've got to grow up a bit in that area."

"We expected to beat South Africa today," Howley said, his quick dark eyes aglitter with conflicting emotions. "There are 22 players in the dressing- room downstairs who are very disapppointed that we didn't make it."

There had been no mention whatsoever, during the build-up to the game, of the 96-13 catastrophe in Pretoria last June, but Howley confirmed that it had been on his mind for the past six months. "The statement we made out there today," he said, "was that we are not going to be the whipping boys of international rugby. But even after a day like that, on Monday morning we'll be back at the office with more work to do. Tonight we'll relax, but then we have to prepare ourselves again. If we lose to Argentina next Saturday, you can forget this result."

Vis-a-vis the trauma at Loftus Versfeld, the more prosaic statement they were making was that a side with Howley probing, Jenkins kicking, Gibbs crunching, the revelatory Shane Howarth turning defensive possession into damaging raids, and the colossal Quinnell boys knocking opponents over like motorway traffic cones is a very different proposition from one lacking those components, as Wales did in June.

"This was never going to be the 50-point victory that the media were predicting," Nick Mallett, the Boks' coach, said afterwards, in between several emphatic tributes to the Welsh effort. "It's hard to prepare yourself to play a team that you've never seen before. Wales are a different team, with a different coach and a different way of playing. They played well, and we contributed to that by making so many mistakes. The way we came back to win is the only thing we can be happy with."

For Welshmen, even in the shadow of defeat, a measure of euphoria seemed legitimate. Their players had played a full part in what must surely have been one of the greatest international rugby matches ever played on British soil, a magnificent spectacle, overflowing with the best qualities of sport - skill, athleticism, sheer human spirit. The Prince of Wales should have been there. What a birthday treat it would have been.