Wales were almost unrecognisable from the team who lost the First Test 43-17. Yesterday they put in a far better performance – the defence was tighter and more aggressive and theirball-retention and discipline vastly improved. South Africa have come on since winning the World Cup last year, and that says a lot about Wales's display on the high veldt.
They played for each other and put their bodies on the line, and when they led 21-20 after 60 minutes they looked as if they could achieve their first victory in South Africa. They were threatening to score another try when they conceded a turnover in front of the Springboks' posts. It was a turning point in a top-class Test match.
South Africa were just the better side, although a scoreline of 30-21 would have been more realistic. Anybody with a feeling for the game would have disallowed the last try.
As close as Wales came and as well as they played, a number of factors explained why they came up short. To begin with, they were without three key players, all of whom would have made an impact.
This is no criticism of the players who came in, but I feel it would have been even better with Lee Byrne, Gavin Henson and Martyn Williams. At full-back Byrne would have supplied a big kicking game; at inside- centre Henson is a great defender and distributor and has the ability to get over the gain line. And at openside flanker Williams would have made the contest for the loose ball even more fascinating.
There was another factor, and that was Lyndon Bray. I am not in favour of criticising referees, but here I have to make an exception. New Zealand have been going on and on about the Englishman Wayne Barnes ever since they lost that World Cup quarter-final to France. Frankly it does my head in, but I thought Mr Bray had a very poor game.
His positional play was at fault, particularly for South Africa's first try, when he got in the way of Stephen Jones. He also played the advantage law for so long you wondered when it was going to end. It usually did so when South Africa, having been given numerous opportunities, failed to score a try and were finally awarded a penalty.
When Wales were leading for the second time Jamie Roberts was penalised for not being on his feet at a ruck, but he had been pushed over. South Africa, who were worried, regained the lead. To win big games youneed luck, and Wales didn't get it. Crucial decisions were wrongly called, and but for that they could have pulled off a historic victory.
Having said that, I was impressed with South Africa, who said they would play "heads up" rugby and did. They were adventurous and dangerous at threequarter and their forwards looked comfortable with the ball in hand. Their line-out is phenomenal, they are adept at varying the tempo, and if I had to single out one of their players it would be Luke Watson.
The Springboks are going forward and so are Wales. The Lions tour to South Africa is not until next year but Ian McGeechan, the coach, was at this match and even he might have been on his feet when Shane Williams scored Wales's second try. There is not a better wing in world rugby, Bryan Habana included. The Lions could be in a strong position.
Wales will be disappointed to lose the series but they showed character in Pretoria, where in 1998 they conceded nearly 100 points. Most rugby nations nowadays are on a par in terms of fitness and technique, but the major difference Warren Gatland has made is mental toughness. It's all in the head.Reuse content