Roberts and Faletau offer hope amid depressingly familiar story

 

Wales have made such an art form of narrow defeats to the southern hemisphere superpowers (and let's leave aside the many hammerings for the time being) that if it was possible to lose by a tenth of a point, you know they would've managed it yesterday.

Dear God, the cornflakes must have been flying back home, together with curses to make a docker blush, as Jamie Roberts battered the fly-half channel on angles that would have made Pythagaros drool and the Cardiffian centre combined with Toby Faletau, the young Tongan-Welshman whose try so nearly – but not quite – upset the world champions. No wonder Warren Gatland, Wales's New Zealander head coach, could barely get his post-match comments out through gritted teeth at the conclusion of yet another one that got away.

It was to the credit of South Africa that when forced to scramble for their lives, they did so effectively enough to repel three great chances for Wales in the "red zone" close to their goal-line early in the second half. When they did concede Faletau's try, set up by the rampaging Roberts to trail 16-10, some wise substitutions by the Springboks rescued a win.

The lingering thrill for the millions of neutrals with no vested interest in either side was that although the opening weekend of the World Cup had ended with a predictable scoreline of "Tri Nations 3 The Rest 0", there was enough devil in the detail to suggest the next few weeks need not be a completely straightforward procession to two out of three of them meeting in the final.

There was the discomfort caused to New Zealand's scrummage by Tonga in the tournament opener on Friday, and the "will he, won't he, what the hell's he doing now?" antics of Australia's playmaker Quade Cooper against Italy yesterday.

And the sign-off of the first round of matches in windy Wellington was Wales tilting spectacularly at the Springbok windmill. A second win in 26 meetings looked on for long periods in the second half thanks to the directness of the way the Welsh took their attacks to South Africa – not flitting around the edges with twinkling feet, but belligerently up the guts of a team who had kicked off with a world-record 815 caps and nine of the starting XV who had been victorious in the 2007 final. Wales – callow, brave, mostly coordinated – had nine members of their starting line-up making World Cup debuts.

Rhys Priestland's wayward dropped-goal attempt in the 70th minute and James Hook's off-target penalty three minutes later will be mourned as the most obvious missed chances. Neither man should hang his head; they did enough that was good and promising elsewhere.

The same goes for the 22-year-old captain, Sam Warburton, who ripped ball from South Africans in the manner of a pit bull tearing meat from a bone. Warburton's bonce may need to be bathed in ice instead to soothe the inevitable bruises and also to deal with the lurking headache that his side may have to do all of this again to get the results they need in the Pool D matches against Samoa and Fiji.

What Wales must not do is drop off the high standards they set yesterday, though their likeliest prize now is a quarter-final with Australia. While this may not be the most apt moment to mention it, just think how much better this youthful team's chances are likely to be at the next World Cup, in England in four years' time.

Peter de Villiers, South Africa head coach, said this had been "not just a rugby Test, but a test of character". He can include his own, because as he extended the shepherd's crook to haul off stalwarts John Smit, Bryan Habana and the injured Victor Matfield and Frans Steyn, he must have felt the sweat-inducing realisation that what had looked to be a world-beating, record-cap accumulating team on paper was exposed as urgently in need of high-profile tinkering.

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