Du Preez's cool head keeps the dream alive

The Grand Slam that South Africa covet after a 40-year gap in the northern hemisphere was within an ace of being dashed from their grasp at Cardiff.

The Springbok coach, Jake White, had said it would be a disaster if his team lost to Wales. They very nearly did so, hanging on with wobbly legs and a trembling heart, like a boxer about to be counted out in the last round. Sure, the Boks held a lead for much of this fluctuating encounter at the magnificent Millennium Stadium, but the composure they demonstrated to land the Tri-Nations title in the southern hemisphere earlier this year, was notably absent at Cardiff.

Panic surged into their ranks whenever Wales applied consistent pressure, and their own unforced errors handed Wales easy points from the boot of Stephen Jones. Many of those kicks came when Wales were gasping to hang on earlier in the game. They revived the Welsh, like a blast of oxygen to the croaking patient.

Some surprise then, that the ailing Welsh twice came so vividly to life when the match seemed palpably beyond them. The first occasion was early in the second half, when the loss of Schalk Burger through a yellow card exposed South Africa's shakiness. The second was near the end when the Springboks were almost caught.

This was far from a convincing performance by White's men. They had the line-out control they sought, principally through the leaping of Victor Matfield and Joe van Niekerk. And early on, they showed powerful surges in the scrums.

But there were too many nerves jangling around the Springbok side for White's comfort. They looked rusty, as befits a side who have not played together since August. And there was a lack of calm and composure when Wales mounted their pressure.

What South Africa did have, was the blistering pace of their No 8 Van Niekerk, who finished off a superb first-half movement for a try, and generally added speed to everything that his side tried to do. They were grateful for Percy Montgomery's kicking, too.

Similarly in an attacking sense, they had the perceptive skills of Jaco van der Westhuyzen who showed again that he has the ability to become a fine fly-half. The former Leicester player is no flashy performer, but his eye for a gap and his ability to read a game were essential requirements for his team yesterday.

But it was Van der Westhuyzen's half-back partner, Fourie du Preez, who most earned his corn. Du Preez is a calm, probing scrum-half. He lacks the pace to make the kind of searing breaks his predecessor Joost van der Westhuizen once used to destroy defences. But on a dank, damp day in Cardiff, Du Preez was just what South Africa needed. He kept calm, supplied a steady service, kicked astutely to keep his forwards advancing and was a vital cog in the South African machine. Just as important, his defensive reading of the game enabled him to make some critical tackles and alleviate positions of danger.

Du Preez rarely says a lot, least of all about himself. But his rugby did the talking for him at Cardiff, and his side scraped through to fight another day thanks in part to his many valuable contributions.

But if the Springboks are to get to the end of this tour with their hands around the mythical Grand Slam, then they are going to have to show a whole lot more presence and composure. The pressure Wales mounted was, in the main, sporadic, yet alarm bells were going off throughout the Bok side.

They have the pack, the pace and the power to beat the sides in this part of the world. And they will be mighty glad this first examination is over, for if truth be told, they only scraped through it. They must believe better days lie ahead.