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Rugby Union: Henry's heroes building on granite

Rugby Union: First-ever win over Springboks lifts Welsh World Cup hopes as England rue missed opportunity
THE 21ST CENTURY was celebrated six months early in Cardiff on Saturday. In an event as symbolic and significant as the founding of the Assembly, Wales beat rugby's world champions South Africa with a performance as monumental as the new Millennium Stadium promises to be.

The new era in Welsh rugby had dawned some 10 months ago with the arrival of the near-messianic figure of their coach, the New Zealander Graham Henry. Now High Noon, aka the 1999 World Cup, looms large, and things are looking up.

The record under Henry reads played 10, won 7, lost 3. They are on a run of six consecutive victories. It is some roll. And this victory was no fluke. South Africa were no pushover either. The Springboks had just stuck 175 points on Italy - 101 of them in the second Test a week ago. But Wales trotted out on to the green, green grass of their palatial new home to a deafening roar from those supporters lucky enough to have tickets in the half-completed stadium, and put bodies, reputations and even their physical wellbeing on the line.

It was the match of a lifetime, if not the century. The number of people who will claim in future, "I was there", will far exceed the 27,000 actually in the space-age ground. It was an intimidating, even menacing, atmosphere which greeted South Africa. Their captain, Gary Teichmann, acknowledged afterwards: "The stadium was only a third full but, given the noise they made, I cannot begin to imagine what it will sound like when it is full."

This victory was yet another in a string of firsts since Henry took over last September. It was Wales' first victory in 13 Tests against South Africa, a series which began in 1906, and followed hard on their first series triumph away - a 2-0 success in Argentina. But given the level of support on Saturday this result was probably no surprise. The Wales captain, Rob Howley, was clearly moved when he eventually led out his side into the cauldron of sound, having kept the fans and, more importantly, the Springboks waiting.

"We were letting the crowd noise build up a bit," Howley explained. "The players appreciated the crowd and what our supporters have gone through while we have been playing at Wembley. We just wanted to enjoy the moment of our return as much as it was possible to, given that we were about to face the world champions." When they finally emerged Howley added: "It is a moment that will live with me for ever."

Victory enabled Howley to consign some painful memories to the background. "I seem to have been on the wrong side of historic scorelines lately," Howley explained. He was referring to the 60 points conceded against England and the 51-0 drubbing against France in 1998 followed by the humiliating 96-13 defeat against South Africa in Pretoria last June. "I was sitting in the stand in Pretoria with 40,000 Boks screaming for 100 points," added Howley. "We deserved to beat them when we met them again at Wembley last November and I think today we finally put South Africa to bed."

All week Henry had played down Wales' chances saying it was a Test too far; the players were exhausted, needed a rest. He said afterwards: "We wondered whether we had it in us. Today we showed we did."

The Wales scrummage was awesome. The front row neutralised then destroyed their opposite numbers. Loose-head prop Peter Rogers was magnificent, tight-head Dai Young devious and devastating. Lock Chris Wyatt was fantastic in line-out and loose and in future it is oxen who will be described as being as strong as a Scott Quinnell. His brother Craig missed three quarters of the match after breaking his right thumb, but Scott made up for his absence. His rampaging scattered Springbok defenders like flocks of sparrows. His ball winning and ability to take it up was incomparable.

Behind this superb forward display was a potent back line, star of which was the centre Mark Taylor, scorer of Wales' opening try in first half injury-time. Naturally the boot of Neil Jenkins figured prominently. The Springboks had early warning of what would happen if they transgressed when he thumped over a second-minute penalty. But by half-time South Africa had still not got the message and Jenkins had landed four of his five penalties as well as converting Taylor's try.

Two South Africans received yellow cards, prop Robbie Kempson and flanker Corne Krige, while full-back Percy Montgomery was lucky to stay on following a late body check on Alan Bateman in the second half. The South Africans' preparations were probably not helped by the internal row which broke out last week over selection policy. Sarfu, the country's governing body, were reported to be insisting that the coach, Nick Mallett, select non-whites in the Test team. Mallett said that policy could be enforced at provincial level, but all players regardless of colour had to earn selection in the national side on merit. He was rumoured to have threatened to resign last Wednesday which could have done little for squad morale.

When they finally got their act together in the second half South Africa were a different and a difficult proposition. But Wales' defence has improved immeasurably and heroes were forged in those first 20 minutes after the interval. And having soaked it all up Wales countered with a marvellous try for wing Gareth Thomas. Jenkins converted, then kicked his final penalty. Montgomery's late try was a mere distraction. The Springboks had been flogged. Wales are well set for the millennium.

WALES: S Howarth (Sale); G Thomas (Cardiff), M Taylor (Swansea), A Bateman (Northampton), D James; N Jenkins (both Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); P Rogers (Newport), G Jenkins (Swansea) D Young, C Quinnell (both Cardiff), C Wyatt (Llanelli), C Charvis (Swansea), S Quinnell (Llanelli), B Sinkinson (Neath). Replacements: M Voyle (Llanelli) for C Quinnell, 19; J Humphreys (Cardiff) for G Jenkins, 79; A Lewis (Cardiff) for Rogers, 80.

SOUTH AFRICA: P Montgomery (Western Province); S Terblanche, P Muller (both Natal Sharks), J Mulder (Gauteng Lions), P Rossouw; B van Straaten (both Western Province), W Swanepoel (Gauteng Lions); R Kempson (Western Province), N Drotske (Free State Cheetahs), C Visagie, S Boome (both Western Province), K Otto (Northern Transvaal Blue Bulls), C Krige (Western Province), G Teichmann (Natal Sharks, capt), J Erasmus (Gauteng Lions). Replacements: A Venter (Free State Cheetahs) for Boome, 51; O Le Roux (Natal Sharks) for Visagie, 51; D von Hoesslin (Griquas) for Swanepoel, 57; G du Toit (Griquas), for van Straaten, 57.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

Wales 29 South Africa 19

Tries: Taylor, Thomas Tries: Montgomery, Swanepoel

Conversions: Jenkins 2 Penalties: Van Straaten 2 Penalties: Jenkins 5 Du Toit

Half-time: 19-6 Attendance: 27,168