When the Mole is wrong, boy is he wrong. The Welsh tore into the South African pack from early on in the game until about the hour mark, and were the dominant team for much of the match.
Though Frans Steyn muscled over early for a fine South African try, it was the Welsh who showed greater verve and physicality throughout. Captain Sam Warburton announced himself on the world stage with a Man of the Match performance, handily outperforming the bane of the 2009 Lions, Heinrich Brussouw. Personally, I felt that referee Wayne Barnes had bought into the hype a little and allowed him some leeway when it came to staying on his feet at the breakdown. However, he was playing right on the margins and got away with it.
Showpony Pierre Spies did nothing of note all day, being played off the park by nipper Toby Faletau. Crazy to think that Joe van Niekerk isn’t even in the conversation when it comes to No8 – he’s actually a proper rugby player, not a gym monster. With Pienaar, Muller and Frans Steyn in the squad, de Villiers obviously didn’t have any problem picking players playing in Europe, so it’d seem that he’s probably not even in the picture for selection. Unwise.
With that said, Crazy Piet isn’t exactly the ne plus ultra of coherent selectors. He managed to omit one of the best players in the world from his starting selection – kudos to you Piet, kudos. Once Bismarck was on the pitch, the game swung hugely in the Boks favour. Now, it’s not all down to him: the Welsh forward substitutes were weak and thus went unused, with the exception of Bradley Davies, and the Boks bench was very, very strong. Steenkamp, Muller [who did very well coming on for Matfield] and Willem Alberts offered a freshness and physicality that the Welsh just couldn’t match after the hour mark. They really hit the wall. You could see them standing around waiting for a scrum just after the hour near halfway, and they just looked absolutely shattered.
However, Wales still had chances to win. An easy drop-goal attempt from Rhys Priestland was terribly hooky from an excellent field position, and James Hook missed a late penalty kick from the right side of the pitch.
Early in the game, Frans Steyn looked like he was going to not just take over the match, but take over the entire World Cup. The Boks are under-utilising him though, and need to find ways to get him running in the backline because the threat out wide is pretty mild these days. Jean de Villiers coming off really stunted their invention in midfield, if it didn’t already look bad enough with Morne Steyn at outhalf. SA could put Lambie at 10 and change their entire world cup – is it worth losing the metronomical goalkicking for a bigger running threat?
2008 IRB International Player of the Year Shane Williams is still worth the price of admission, while 2007 winner Bryan Habana is a spent force. Hougaard – who’s still more a scrum-half than a winger – was a distinct step up from Habana, and looked lively and dangerous. Leaving Lwazi Mvovo at home is looking a worse decision that it initially appeared to be, as the Boks really lack spark on the wings.
The Welsh will be kicking themselves that this one got away, but boy do they look like a coherent, well-trained team. Their young backrow excelled themselves against illustrious opponents, and a fairly non-vintage front five were manful and hard-working for the entire match. Centres Roberts and Davies carried like trucks and, really, it’s a bit of a shocker that they lost this one in the end.