Rugby Union: Henry's huge leap of faith

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The Independent Online
THE FACT that Wales were so disappointed at not winning this match is in itself a triumph so unexpected it must rank as one of the best ever Welsh displays. Had they won, I would have had no hesitation in acclaiming it to be the finest victory in Welsh rugby history. And the fact that the last international they played was the worst defeat in their history makes it an incredible transformation.

They turned an 83-point margin of defeat against South Africa less than six months ago into an eight-point margin yesterday. That's an improvement of 75 points match-to-match against the world champions. The world of rugby has never seen an improvement like that, and never will.

It represents a brilliant feat by Graham Henry, which has taken the breath of Wales away let alone the rest of the world. The boys will have plenty to console them when they recover from losing a match that was well within their grasp until the final minutes. The only Welsh fault was a lack of experience of how to clinch a victory.

A team of South Africa's accomplishments, who have played together as a unit for so long, could always be reckoned to gain the upper hand in the latter stages but even for that they had to battle every inch of the way against a Welsh team whose confidence has been restored as if by magic.

I've watched closely over these last few weeks as Henry has completed his preparations and admired how much care he was taking to work out how to combat South Africa's strengths. No one could really judge how his rebuilding plans were taking shape as all the work was being done in training and they didn't have the advantage of a warm-up match.

So it was a brand new side operating just on the confidence that Henry had instilled behind closed doors that hit Wembley yesterday. And I don't know who was most surprised at the way they started - the South Africans, the Welsh fans or the team themselves.

I have to confess that before I didn't expect them to win but I did think they would go a lot closer than most people anticipated because I could see how Henry's methods were having an effect. He didn't flog them in training like previous regimes have. He concentrated on their attitude, on making them think positively, and gave them the confidence to go out and reach levels they've never reached before.

It is being said South Africa nearly contributed to their own downfall because of the number of errors they made. But I believe the quality and defiance of the Welsh effort was the biggest cause of those mistakes.

The last time the Welsh were at Wembley, they were beaten 51-0 by France, so the place held as many bad memories as those South African shirts did. But they took no time at all to lay both ghosts and to build a 14-0 lead was a superb performance. I hestitate to criticise the referee, Stuart Dickinson, because I thought he had a good game but I think his decision to award a penalty try against Wales was an error. Wales had been doing well in the scrum earlier so there was no reason to suppose they were acting under desperation. The fairest decision would have been to reset the scrum just once.

It was undoubtedly a turning point and it helped South Africa to get back into the game. Everything depended on how well Henry could restore their confidence for the second half and he certainly managed to do that. It was only a little indiscipline towards the end that lost them the game but they will carry so much confidence into their next match against Argentina. Wales are suddenly back in business.

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