Wales came close yesterday to demolishing the theory that a good little 'un has no chance against a super-heavyweight. Although conceding height and weight wherever you looked, Wales gave it their best shot and landed some serious blows against an opponent who at times appeared to have the equivalent of a horseshoe in their gloves.
In a match that was a classic of its kind, South Africa completed the first leg of their quest for a modern Grand Slam tour of Britain with a victory by three goals, a try and four penalties to three goals and five penalties.
Midway through the first half and again in the second the Springboks pulled away but Wales never gave up the ghost and astonishingly at the end their forwards produced a magnificent drive at a scrum, the Boks crumbled in disarray and the scrum-half Dwayne Peel, who had been alert to everything, snaffled a try. It was an extraordinary conclusion to a great Test.
"We gave them a handsome lead in the first 20 minutes through turnovers and missed tackles," Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, said. "But we showed courage and skill to come right back into the game. Another 10 minutes would have suited us." If Ruddock, six months into the job, looked slightly proud, he had every cause to be. This was a significant improvement on the 53-18 defeat to South Africa in Pretoria in the summer. And there were some pleasant by-products. Gavin Henson, the 22-year-old stand-off for the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, was playing only the second match of his career at inside-centre but he capped an excellent performance with two tries. Ruddock, after the huge disappointment in South Africa, had asked his team to play with passion and a will to win and they very nearly provided it.
The new, acceptable face of South African rugby did not smile on Wales, especially early on in the encounter but by the end of a match of which they seemed to have in their pockets they were particularly grateful to the presence of the full-back Percy Montgomery.
Montgomery was one of the stars of the game, who turned his back on his own country before South Africa, under their enlightened coach Jake White, embarked on a new age. The Newport Gwent Dragon contributed 23 points with a try, three conversions and four penalties, just outscoring the Wales stand-off Stephen Jones.
Jones the Boot - it helps to distinguish him from all the other Joneses - converted all three of his side's tries and kicked five penalties. Now plying his trade in France, he made a satisfactory homecoming. Indeed, it was almost the return of the prodigal.
Wales fell behind to a Montgomery penalty inside the first minute and it got worse. They lost their first line-out and their first scrum and were still coming to terms with events when, in the seventh minute, Marius Joubert sliced clean through the Welsh midfield and would have scored a sensational try from about 45 yards but for a desperate last-ditch challenge from Hal Luscombe. However, when the attack moved to the left the stand-off Jaco van der Westhuyzen beat Ryan Jones to go over in the corner. Montgomery's conversion had the men in green 10 points clear.
Jones the Boot got the first of his penalties following a surge from Duncan "the Blonde Barnet" Jones, but that was cancelled out by Montgomery a few minutes later when the outstanding Colin Charvis was penalised after legitimately winning the ball on the ground.
A rare error by Montgomery, who took his eye off the ball inside his own 22, led to a Jones penalty but he failed with another shortly afterwards when he would have been better served by putting in a kick to the unguarded left flank. Shane Williams was yelling for him to do so.
Wales's prospects looked bible black, as Dylan Thomas would have put it, when South Africa increased their lead with a stunning try in the 22nd minute. It all stemmed from Michael Owen spilling the ball in a tackle as he charged inside the enemy 22 and the counter-attack was led by Montgomery and maintained by De Wet Barry and by the time the centre offloaded to the No 8 Joe van Niekerk the last of the thin red line had been breached. Van Niekerk, possibly the fastest No 8 in the game, sprinted round behind the posts.
The Tri-Nations champions went further ahead when Wales were harshly penalised for crossing and Montgomery's kick made it 23-6. Two more penalties from Jones made it 23-12 at half-time but the Welsh supporters were not holding their breath. Perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects from the point of view of the Welsh Rugby Union was the attendance of 55,346, which meant that 20,000 tickets were unsold. If they can't fill the Millennium Stadium for the visit of the champions of the southern hemisphere, what sort of attendance will they get for the upcoming matches against Romania and Japan?
While Schalk Burger was in the sin-bin Wales responded with 13 points in a seven minute spell, Henson getting the first of his tries after good work by Dafydd Jones but with the score 23-22, the Springboks again pulled clear through tries by Jean de Villiers and Montgomery, the latter the result of another marvellous counter-attack.
All of a sudden Wales found themselves trailing 38-22, but to their immense credit wrote the final chapter in a gripping drama.