Brutal South Africa a bridge too far for valiant Wales
Warren Gatland’s side are just edged out by Boks in gruesome battle at Twickenham
Fourie Du Preez and Schalk Burger embrace after South Africa’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final win over Wales. Photograph: Getty
Wales fell agonisingly short, a defeat they might haunt them for some time. Not because they didn’t give their all, they did magnificently so at times, especially considering the injury list but because they didn’t take their chances. It was an Achilles heel against Australia and resurfaced again today.
In a match of fine margins, those moments of rugby clarity are crucial. The teams wore red and green but in style represented a mirror image for large tranches of the game, running straight and hard and seeking out contact, box-kicking, cross-kicking with the Welsh slightly more thoughtful in occasionally trying to find a way around their opponents, rather than religiously ape the Boks’ preoccupation for running over the corpses.
Wales blinked in the spotlight but South Africa didn’t when they were called to centre stage.
In the 74th minute the Springbok scrum engineered a mini-wheel towards the touchline, discommoding the Welsh defence just enough for number eight Duane Vermeulen to physically occupy two tacklers and then flick a beautifully weighted, one-handed offload behind his back to captain Fourie du Preez.
The scrumhalf was celebrating before he scampered over in the corner. It took the Springboks from a point behind to a 23-19 lead. It didn’t matter that Handre Pollard failed with the touchline conversion and it consigned his two missed penalties earlier in the half to an incidental footnote rather than commandeering the headlines.
South Africa had dominated the final quarter as Wales simply ran out of energy. The Springboks began to win the collisions. There was nothing subtle to what they were doing; just brutish in the way they carried the ball into contact, led by the indefatigable Schalk Burger.
The one moment in the half, and possibly the match, where they engineered space in the Welsh 22, Willie le Roux’s slaloming run eventually came to nothing but it stood apart from the muscularity with which the Springboks applied themselves to everything else.
It was impossible not to feel for Wales; courageous and indomitable in spirit but these matches require other virtues and when Wales reflect, they will appreciate discipline is so important. They conceded 12 penalties to South Africa’s nine and that plus their inability to recognise and grasp try scoring opportunities proved an insurmountable handicap.
Toby Faletau was magnificent in a ferociously committed effort from the Welsh pack; Dan Biggar gave his team superb direction and was the one player who appreciated space on the pitch; it was fitting that he scored most of his side’s points with three penalties, a drop goal and the conversion to Gareth Davies try, which he created for his halfback partner.
Wayne Barnes was an erratic presence and there were a number of contentious decisions, not least him being prepared to let Vermeulen lead with his forearm going into contact. There was also a kick to the Sam Warburton’s head - dangerous but not malicious - that should have cost Eben Etzebeth time in the sin bin.
The Boks’ demonstrated great mental strength, relentless as they worked for every single metre on the decisive journey to the Welsh 22 from just outside their own.
Warren Gatland must have felt apoplectic during the first quarter of the match, when Wales, as they had done against Australia, butchered two, gold embossed opportunities to score tries. A failure to appreciate the basis of the sport cost them dearly.
On the first occasion George North was sent clear down the left wing and as the cover converged he had a chance to give the supporting Gareth Anscombe a scoring pass but instead delayed a fraction of a second. The wing had to check then because Anscombe ran into the space, through no fault of his own.
The Welsh recycled and in a matter of seconds had another chance, this time in the opposite corner. Jamie Roberts came on a short line that saw the move stall briefly but his side were still numbers-up out wide. However prop Gethin Jenkins basketball style pass drifted over three players’ heads and into touch.
His intention was fine, the execution less so. If that wasn’t bad enough secondrow Luke Charteris elected to take contact in the South African 22 when Wales had players screaming for the ball but the overlap was spurned.
Remarkably the ‘Boks led 6-0 at that point, 10-minutes into the game, through two excellent penalties from South African outhalf Handre Pollard. The Welsh indiscipline - they conceded seven penalties in the first half and four within the kicking range of the flawless Pollard - was hugely damaging.
Most of the transgressions were of the ‘could-have-been-avoided’ category. South Africa were strong and direct, Schalk Burger getting through a massive workload, but there was precious little subtlety to what they were trying to do.
Dan Biggar’s penalty on 14 minutes ended the torment briefly for the Welsh supporters but from the kick-off Alun Wyn Jones strayed offside at a ruck - his second offence of the game - and Pollard nudged South Africa into a 9-3 lead.
Wales finally got the try they deserved with a minute. Anscombe fielded a long clearance from Fourie du Preez and looked inside to find Biggar.
The Welsh outhalf spotted a gaping hole up the centre of the pitch, launched an up-and-under, won the aerial contest with South African fullback Willie le Roux, pirouetted on landing and offloaded superbly to the supporting Gareth Davies, who was strong enough to ride a tackle and make the line.
South Africa will worry where their defenders disappeared to from a straightforward Garryowen. Biggar added the conversion and Wales were deservedly ahead; it lasted less than 60-seconds as Charteris was penalised for a silly obstruction and Pollard make it a fourth success from as many chances.
Wales though went in 13-12 ahead when in first half injury time Biggar dropped a fine goal after the position had been engineered by his pack. The second half began with Pollard missing his first kick of the afternoon, and the easiest. When Biggar posted a monster effort from four metres inside the South African half; at 16-12 they were singing Hymns and Arias.
Pollard dropped a goal, missed a penalty, and kicked a really difficult one while Biggar’s effort on 62-mintes nudged Wales 19-18 in front. The Welsh initially repelled wave after wave of South African attacks, their defence beggared belief but having lifted the siege a couple of penalties gave the ‘Boks a route map back into the Welsh 22, from where the Principality would eventually perish.
A moment of beauty in a savage landscape.
8: Pollard penalty, 3-0; 12: Pollard penalty, 6-0; 14: Biggar penalty, 6-3; 16: Pollard penalty, 9-3; 17: G Davies try, Biggar conversion, 9-10; 20: Pollard penalty, 12-10; 40 (+1): Biggar drop goal, 12-13. Half-time: 12-13. 46: Biggar penalty, 12-16; 51: Pollard drop goal, 15-16; 61: Pollard penalty, 18-16; 63: Biggar penalty, 18-19; 74: du Preez try, 23-19.
South Africa: W le Roux; JP Pietersen, J Kriel, D de Allende, B Habana; H Pollard, F du Preez (capt); T Mtawarira, B du Plessis, F Malherbe; E Etzebeth, L de Jager; F Louw, S Burger, D Vermeulen. Replacements: A Strauss for B du Plessis 12-23 and 55 mins; T Nyakane for Mtawarira 56 mins, J du Plessis for Malherbe 60 mins; J Serfontein for Kriel 67 mins; W Alberts for Louw 67 mins; P-Steph du Toit for Etzebeth 67 mins; P Lambie for Pollard 76 mins.
Wales: G Anscombe; A Cuthbert, T Morgan, J Roberts, G North; D Biggar, G Davies; G Jenkins, S Baldwin, S Lee; L Charteris, A Wyn Jones; D Lydiate, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau. Replacements: P James for Jenkins 55 mins; T Francis for Lee 55 mins; K Owens for Baldwin 56 mins; B Davies for Charteris 63 mins; J Hook for Morgan 67 mins; J Tipuric for Lydiate 67 mins; L Williams for G Davies 70 mins; R Priestland for Biggar 73 mins.
Referee: W Barnes (England)