by Ciarán Duffy
Killer Blow Ensures Springboks Progress
Last month when South Africa were beaten by Japan they looked like they just weren’t up to it this time around. After yesterday’s game, they are officially serious contenders again, and will not fear New Zealand next week.
This was a back-and-forth contest. Literally back-and-forth with the amount of turnovers and aimless kicking. Wales hung in here longer than I thought they would. Aside from some indiscipline, their defence remained solid right up until a late blip that ultimately proved costly. Wales were in front for large periods of the game, but the Springboks ultimately remained calm and put the pressure on Wales, who were just unable to throw another punch.
Wales had to go at South Africa early and they did just that. They won an early penalty in their own half and from there they started to control the game.
George North burst forward making it within 2 meters of the line, had Anscombe not over run him slightly he may have been in. Straight away Wales had a clear try-scoring opportunity, but they couldn’t take the chance and Gethin Jenkins couldn’t keep his pass down and it sailed out over Morgan’s head.
Moments later Wales embarked on a 13-phase attack before getting turned over. A few minutes later Handre Pollard was converting a South African penalty to open the scoring. Wales went back on the attack and got a reward this time with Biggar knocking over his first attempt of the game, but that was cancelled out by Pollard immediately, kicking two penalties to put the gap back to 6. The first 17 minutes of the game strongly resembled the Australia – Wales game, with Wales doing most of the attacking but the Southern Hemisphere side taking their chances.
But in the 18th minute a bit of masterful play from Dan Biggar created the opening try of the game. Most of Biggars contributions have come from the kicking tee, but here he hoofed the ball into the air, chased it, and caught it, he made it within meters of the line before playing in Davies. Biggar converted it and just like that Wales were in front. It was a deserved lead as well, they had had all the possession and played some good attacking rugby. This try was a moment they could have built on.
No lessons were learned and Wales remained their own worst enemy in the first half. Straight from the restart they conceded a penalty which Pollard slotted over to put South Africa in front. The Welsh lineout was functioning poorly, with Baldwin overthrowing a few times in potentially threatening position. This was the story of the first 40 for Wales, all the territory but very little composure.
There was a pivotal moment midway through the first-half which could have gone either way, but ultimately came to nothing. The Springboks made it deep into the Welsh half with some terrific interplay. It was well turned over and Davies got the ball clear and chased forward. Pietersen was put under a huge amount of pressure and had to make a hasty clearance. Just like that Wales had gained 50 meters. Wales won the resulting lineout but Habana made a crucial turnover and the ball was cleared.
Wales weren’t taking their chances, but the Springboks were not taking their chances to make chances. A few times in the first half they kicked away possession without anyone chasing the ball. There was a stage around 7 minutes before halftime where both sides hopelessly kicked the ball to each other with no real chase. It was a tight game and both sides could sense the tension and neither wanted to make a mistake.
There was a final twist in a tantalizing first-half. Biggar hit the post with a late penalty, but it remained in play and Wales won a scrum. There was a brief scuffle between a few players, which was inevitable given the anxious nature of the first-half. Wales won their own scrum and Biggars drop goal found its way between the posts. The Welsh took a deserved 1-point lead into the break.
Pollard was impeccable in the first-half from the tee, but missed two early penalties in the second-half. It seemed as though the pressure of his first World Cup knockout game was weighing on him. That pressure was cranked up when Wales won another penalty, and after a short Macarena from Dan Biggar, as is customary for all his kicks, he scored it, with 47 minutes gone Wales were in front by four. The Springboks put in their best attack of the game.
They kept possession well and didn’t panic. Warburton managed to rip the ball away and clear it but South Africa came back. After 10 phases Pollard got a drop goal. This made the two-time Junior World Cup winner the highest points scorer of RWC2015. South Africa were still behind but this was a great bit of leadership. It was important the Springboks took something from that lengthy passage of attack, and they did. A few times in the first-half, Wales seemed to panic when they got into good positions, but South Africa remained calm, knowing that there was still time.
As the numbers 16+ began to appear, the momentum went South Africa’s way. The Welsh were tiring and the Springboks were finding it easier to make significant territory. Baldwin had to go off injured to add to their problems. Most of the second-half had been played in the Welsh half, and they were not making good use of their attacks.
Anscombe was guilty of making things a bit too complicated attempting a kick through a crown of defenders despite having an overlap out wide. The kick was blocked and Habana very nearly made the Welsh pay. Pollard knocked over a penalty just after the hour mark to put the Springboks two points to the good. It seemed like the intensity was finally starting to tell for this depleted Welsh team.
If there was a time for a last stand it was now. From the restart they put serious pressure on South Africa, and some excellent counter-rucking earned them a penalty. Biggar converted expertly making the score 18-19 in favour of the team in red. Suddenly Pollards missed penalties were seeming like they’d be costly.
What followed was a messy period in the game where possession was kicked away needlessly and no chances were made. By the 70th minute Wales had made over 100 more tackles than South Africa and they were clearly out on their feet. Biggar was taken off with 6 minutes to go and did not look happy. His face was a mixture of anger, confusion and despair. The look you'd expect of someone who had just lost their biscuit to a cup of tea after only 4 dunks. South Africa had more in the tank at this stage, and that was the deciding factor, they needed one more killer blow and they would not be denied. The Springboks scrum twisted around which drew the defence in. Vermeulen went himself from the back, occupying Cutberth’s attention leaving Fourie du Preez free on the wing to touch down. It was as if the Springboks had spent the past 75 minutes building to that score. They had continued to build slowly and finally took their chance when it was on.
There was more late drama to come. Lambie attempted to seal it with a drop goal but it fell just short. Wales were pinned into their own half and had to go the whole pitch. They were still in their own half when the clock went red and their fatigue kept them there. They just didn’t have enough left, du Preez cleared the ball and South Africa were through.
Wales deserve a lot of credit for their performance, here and throughout the World Cup. They’ve worked hard and haven’t sat back feeling sorry for themselves as the injuries mounted up. The England game will live on for a long time in Welsh rugby folklore, and will surely crop up for the next few Six Nations. The performance today showed a lot of heart and resilience, but as we Irish know as well as anyone that can only take you so far. South Africa had more energy and more composure when they needed it, that was the winning and losing of the game.
The lack of panic by the Springboks was a positive, but there were things that will concern Heyneke Meyer. South Africa gave the ball away far too much in the first-half. Aimlessly kicking the ball away will not go unpunished against the All Blacks. As we saw yesterday, (and as you can read about here), New Zealand were clinical and took all their chances. South Africa cannot give them as much as they gave the Welsh today. They also need to create more of their own opportunities. They really only had two or three clear-cut moments when a try was on. If that’s the case next week they will be outscored by Julian Savea alone. Plenty to work on, but this is knockout rugby, and any kind of win will do.
Main thing to take out of all of this? Nigel Owens will be free on October 31st for the final.
Ciarán Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously. He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field.
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