Rugby Union: Wales recover their love of the game

Rugby Union: Teichmann admits Springboks would have settled for a draw as Welsh revival is fired by old fervour;Wales 20 South Africa 28
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TO BE scrupulously fair for a moment, the world champions were immense during the seven minutes that really mattered. Agreed, those seven minutes owed their existence only to the intervention of a particularly elusive streaker and legions of broken Welshmen will forever suspect that the shrivelled interloper was none other than a certain Mr Nick Mallett, clad in a false beard and not much else. Such unpalatable circumstances should not, however, detract from the fact that the tourists were rather more ruthless than the Wembley security staff in grabbing every little thing on offer, so to speak.

But then, no one told Wales - poor, undersized, under-powered, undernourished Wales - that they would need to transform themselves into an 87-minute team. Given that they had rarely played for more than 10 minutes at a time since Gareth and company slipped gently into that sporting good night two decades ago, a more traditional 80-minute effort was all that could legitimately be asked of them. And in those terms, they delivered in gold ingots.

To the point, indeed, that with three minutes of normal time left on the clock, Gary Teichmann, the Springbok captain, asked Franco Smith to kick an equalising penalty rather than take a chance on manufacturing a winning try. "I felt that the most important thing, the only thing at that stage, was to get even at 20-all," confirmed Teichmann afterwards and it was the clearest possible endorsement of the Welsh effort that, with a Grand Slam campaign and a world record run of consecutive Test victories so obviously at stake, the Boks were happy to settle for a draw.

Andre Venter's 81st-minute try eventually earned them a great deal more, and if the Free State flanker's decisive score owed something to a fortuitous deflection from the hand of Johan Erasmus, it would take a determinedly myopic Welshman not to admire the sudden outbreak of precision that enabled the Bokke pack to go about some highly profitable after-hours business. Until then, the South African performance had been notable only for a deluge of errors from generally error-free players, although those mistakes said more about the men in red shirts than the titans in green.

Graham Henry may well be the Great Redeemer for whom the whole of Wales has been praying, for this was an annunciation of New Testament proportions. Mallett, whose unbeaten run as Springbok coach now covers an unprecedented 14 Tests, had privately asserted that the crafty New Zealander was almost impossible to second guess. His fears were amply borne out by events. The new Welsh coach pulled every trick in the book to minimise the obvious Springbok advantages.

The Welsh players spoke of many things during the swirl of after-match emotion; they talked of pride and passion, dignity and disappointment, fire and focus, responsibility and respect. But the one word they used more than any other was meticulous. "Graham studied the Boks like you'd never believe - he must have spent days watching the tapes - and the game plan he gave us was meticulous in every detail," said Shane Howarth, an old protege of Henry's and a stand-out performer on his Wales debut. "The quality of preparation allowed us to leave the dressing- room in the genuine belief that we could win the game."

Henry was at his most shrewd in the areas of greatest danger to his team. Fearful of the Springboks' all-consuming strength at the line-out, he not only instructed Neil Jenkins to keep the ball in play whenever possible, but devised a range of tactics that bordered on near-illegal intuitive genius. "We had three or four goes at putting the ball in the Welsh corners, but not once could we get a proper drive going," said Teichmann with a knowing smile. Why would that have been, Gary? No answer. Just one of those "Ask the ref" shrugs.

More crucially still, the coach knew enough of the brittle Welsh psyche to emphasise the enormous importance of the first 20 minutes to the remainder of the afternoon. Many of his key personnel - Scott Gibbs, Chris Wyatt and, in particular, the Quinnell brothers - are mood players, men happy to fight every inch of the way provided there is something worth fighting for. A 14-point lead in the first quarter ensured their passionate commitment to the remaining three.

Wales hit the Boks with an eighth-minute try of such bold adventure that, whenever the demons of doubt descend upon them as they build towards next year's World Cup, they should look to it for reassurance. Rob Howley and the menacing Gibbs are no shrinking violets when it comes to the art of breaking world class defences, but few would have backed Mark Taylor to breeze merrily outside so secure a midfield tackler as Andre Snyman. Once that little job was accomplished, Howarth and Gareth Thomas did everything right to finish it in the corner.

Sadly, Thomas would get it profoundly wrong on 52 minutes when, taking Henry's cry to arms far too literally, he ran 30 metres to make a pugilistic contribution to a hitherto gentle disagreement between James Dalton and Colin Charvis - a hot-headed misjudgement that cost Jenkins a banker penalty in front of goal.

Two other judicial decisions were on the harsh side, though; Stuart Dickinson, the Australian referee, was seriously premature with his penalty try call when the Welsh front row popped up for air at a retreating scrum shortly before the break. He was equally rough in yellow-carding the magnificent Scott Quinnell on the stroke of time for a shoulder charge on Ollie le Roux, a Table Mountain of a prop sufficiently big and ugly not to require protection of the official variety.

If that last incident presented the Boks with their match-winning platform, Quinnell need not feel in the least bit guilty. Together with his brother, Craig, he emerged as a symbol of the new Wales: raw, rugged and ravenously hungry for the fray. "Those bloody Quinnells can certainly carry the ball," mused Mallett as the dust settled on an epic afternoon. On this evidence, they look capable of carrying something more: the revitalised hopes of a nation in love with rugby once again.

Wales: Try Thomas; Penalties Jenkins 5. South Africa: Tries Penalty try, Van der Westhuizen, Venter; Conversions Smith 2; Penalties Smith 3.

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; B Evans (Swansea) for Anthony, 66.

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: O Le Roux (Natal) for Garvey, 45; B Skinstad (Western Province) for Andrews, 45.

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).