The Springboks survived a torrid first half to fight back with passion and commitment in the second half and record a famous victory over a fired-up Wales, but why is it still so unsettling? By TOBY SHAPSHAK.
A week is a long time in politics, but much longer time in sport.
When the much-derided national rugby team pulled off a rousing, commanding win over Ireland last week, a sceptical public suddenly changed its mind that the Springboks could pull off this much-anticipated Grand Slam. But it’s two for two after another close win, 29-25 against Wales at the Millennium Stadium where the Boks famously lost in the first-ever game there 11 years ago.
After trailing 19-9 at half time to an on-fire Welsh team whose pack was pushing the Boks off their own ball, the Springboks came to the party in the second half with a gritty, passionate performance. They scored two tries in three minutes, both converted by Morné Steyn, whose three first-half penalties and one just after the restart, were all the Boks had to show on the board.
It took just six minutes for 18-year-old George North to live up to the hype of being called Wales’ “Jonah Lomu” when he scored his first Test try on debut. He would add a second in the 56th minute – adding spice to a game that came alive in the second half and only tenacious and committed defence ultimately won for the Boks.
Winger Shane Williams weaved his way through the Springboks in broken play before offloading to James hook in the 17th minute for a score that flyhalf Stephen Jones converted. Trailing 29-25 from the 65th minute after Morné Steyn’s fifth penalty, Wales needed a try to win, and laid siege to the Bok’s line for the last 12 minutes of the game. It was a nail-biting finale for Springbok fans, who must’ve thought last week’s predictions of hopeless game play arrived a week too early.
The metronomic boot of Steyn, which kicked both conversions and five penalties, kept the Boks’ hopes alive, as the first four penalties were all that kept them in the game until the 51st minute when substitute Willem Alberts scored. Gio Aplon, who has had to live with accusations about being too small since he cracked the Springbok starting line-up earlier this year, tackled above his weight on at least three crucial moments in that frantic final spell.
First, it was a double hit with Pat Lambie on Welsh hero-of-the-night North, then a hit-back-in-the-tackle on centre Tom Shanklin two minutes later, and another on North just shy of the 82nd minute.
Lambie, who must surely start next week given how he has energised the talented Springbok backrow when he has come on in the last 20 minutes in the past two weeks, stood up manfully in his channel. He never shied away from the big hits, and showed the poise and maturity that belies his 20 years of age.
He showed the presence of mind in that crucial final spell, when in the 77th minute (just after monstering North with Aplon) he took the ball into touch, and pressed it against an official sitting at the advertising hoardings. If the ball going into touch makes contact with a non-player, it can’t be taken as a quick throw-in and the attacking side must form a proper line-out. It was a clever gesture that gave the Springboks a brief respite and probably went unnoticed to most fans (and certainly everyone cheering enthusiastically in my lounge), but revealed more of the “something special” we keep hearing about in this young player.
Apart from Aplon, new caps Alberts and Francois Hougaard also gave a good account of themselves. The bullocking Alberts, who has struggled with an injury and was a late inclusion on the bench, scored a try with virtually his first touch of the ball in a Test. Veterans Juan Smith and Pierre Spies were manful, as was Bismarck du Plessis and captain Victor Matfield capped off his record-breaking 103rd Test cap (the most for any South African) with a superb try. Often accused in his early days of playing in the centres, Matfield dummied and jinxed inside for a try a centre wouldn’t be embarrassed by. Matfield’s try finally put the Boks into the lead, which they managed to hold on to, with a fifth penalty from Steyn.
After resisting 15 nail-biting phases in the final move of the game, Alberts (who has spent a silly amount of this year in a silly fight between his old union, the Lions, and the Sharks, with whom he won the Currie Cup a few weeks ago) kicked the ball out.
The Boks show “great character” as Matfield said afterwards. It was a famous come-from-behind victory, not unlike the June Test against the same competition at the same venue, but against a southern hemisphere side, it’s questionable if the Boks could’ve pulled it off. Wales could just have easily won (like last week if a late conversion hadn’t hit the posts for a draw) had Shanklin passed outside to an unmarked North in the 69th minute.
I don’t want to be a naysayer, but two wins in two weeks – after a truly awful Tri-Nations against the top two teams in the world – doesn’t mean the Springboks are suddenly world beaters again. Worrying signs are still there and the first half, when a different side to the commanding and ruthless team that put Ireland to the sword a week before, gives pause to the new-found enthusiasm for a Grand Slam. The much-vaunted Bok pack in the first half was woeful, a week after being unstoppable; Morné Steyn, despite being ever reliable with the boot, is lacklustre in other facets of play. The time might be right (and I’d prefer to see him play another year of Super rugby and start a few games at inside centre) for Pat Lambie to be given a start, especially against Scotland, the weakest of the home nations right now. With Frans Steyn’s siege gun boot and Ruan Pienaar, there are goal kicking options.
For now, we’ll take a win. DM
Photo: Wales' Stephen Jones (R) tackles South Africa's Jean De Villers (C) during their international friendly Rugby Union match at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth.