Close but no celebration as Wales come up short again

Wales 31 South Africa 34: Gatland's men squander opportunity of rare victory over Springboks as late fightback ends in frustration
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"A day for legends," the headline on the front of the Western Mail proclaimed, above the faces of the Jones boys.

For Kelly Jones, front man of the Stereophonics, there was a concert at a sold out Cardiff City Stadium last night. For Sir Tom Jones, there was his 70th birthday on Monday to talk about. For Ryan Jones, captain of the Welsh XV seeking to take advantage of a weakened Springbok side in the Welsh capital yesterday, sadly there was no famous victory to celebrate at the final whistle. Just the pain and frustration of a narrowly missed opportunity.

It's not unusual, of course, for Wales to be on the suffering end against South Africa. Only once in 104 years have they managed to claim the Springbok scalp. That was 11 years ago, at the opening event of a national stadium still under construction. Yesterday, on the green, green grass of home, there was to be no Welsh partying like it was 1999. It was a close-run thing, though.

Having relinquished a 16-3 lead to trail 31-19 at the end of the third quarter, Wales threatened to produce a repeat of their odds-defying, victory-snatching flying finish against Scotland in the Six Nations' Championship in February. Tries in the 73rd minute by the 18-year-old wing Tom Prydie and in the 76th minute by the replacement lock Alun Wyn Jones took Warren Gatland's men to within three points of the World Cup holders.

It was not quite to be. The Springboks held on by the skin of their incisors. "It's frustrating for all of us," Gatland, Wales' head coach, said. "There was an opportunity there for us today and unfortunately we didn't take it."

It was fast and furious right from the start, with Wales eager to exploit the absence from the opposition ranks of Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana, Schalk Burger, Fourie Du Preez, Pierre Spies and Juan Smith. There was a 16st 10lb statement of intent in the second minute when Juan De Jongh, the Springboks' debutant inside-centre, found himself in space, only to be shunted backwards by his opposite number, Jamie Roberts.

Wales were without key men of their own – Shane Williams, Martyn Williams and Gethin Jenkins – but they meant serious business. They seized the initiative with some crisp, purposeful, high-tempo play in which Roberts and the scrum-half Mike Phillips were conspicuously prominent. They were six points to the good inside 12 minutes, the fly-half Stephen Jones landing a penalty and then James Hook nailing a drop-goal.

Hook was a late selection, asking to delay his scheduled shoulder surgery for one final fling of the season, and the Ospreys outside-centre made the most of his day in the sun, snaffling a wild pass from John Smit to run in the opening try with 21 minutes on the clock. It was a major howler by the Springbok captain and hooker, taking the telegraphed option after finding himself in the first-receiver position from a ruck. It came after an exchange of penalties between Ruan Pienaar and Stephen Jones, and with the latter adding the conversion Wales were 16-3 up – and the Boks a dangerously wounded animal.

The world champions cranked up the forward pressure as half-time approached and in between two further penalty successes by Piennar and a try-saving tackle by Prydie on Francois Steyn, the visitors got their first try on the board. Only just, mind. Prydie, the Ospreys wing who became Wales' youngest ever Test player when he made his debut against Italy in March, almost saved the day again, bundling Odwa Ndungane into touch as the Sharks wing dotted down in the left corner – only for the television match official, Jim Yuille, to deem it a valid score.

Wales were still in front at half-time, but not for long. Thwarted by a brilliant Hook ankle-tap just before the interval, Dewald Potgieter was not to be denied when Victor Matfield fed him on the 22-metre line with a one-handed off-load two minutes into the second-half. Pienaar's conversion put the Boks in front for the first time, 21-16, and they were to remain there.

They looked out of sight in the 59th minute, when Wales were turned over at the breakdown and the sometime Ospreys scrum-half Ricky Januarie fed De Jongh for a debut day score. But then Roberts and Hook teed up Prydie for his first international try, in the left corner, and flanker Sam Warburton paved the way for Alun Wyn Jones to burst through the middle and score. That made it 3-3 on the try front, but sadly for the majority in the 60,527 crowd there was to be no parity on the scoreboard.

"We were really ordinary," captain Smit said of the Springbok effort, rubbing salt into Welsh wounds. "We did enough to win. That's about the best you could say."

Wales: L Byrne; L Halfpenny, J Hook, J Roberts, T Prydie; S Jones, M Phillips; P James, M Rees, A R Jones (J Yapp, 58), B Davies, D Jones (A W Jones, 58), J Thomas, S Warburton (R McCusker, 78), R Jones (capt).

South Africa: F Steyn (Z Kirchner, 75); G Aplon, J Fourie, J De Jongh, O Ndungane (B Basson 33); R Pienaar, R Januarie; C J van der Linde (C Ralepelle, 74), J Smit (capt), B J Botha (J du Plessis, 58), D Rossouw (A Hargreaves, 75), V Matfield, F Louw, D Potgieter (R Kankowski, 56), J van Niekerk.

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).