26 November 2007
Five weeks after the Springboks’ victory in the World Cup final brought the curtain down on the South African rugby season, the Boks were back in action in Cardiff on the weekend, facing Wales in Jake White’s final match after 54 tests as coach.
They wanted to give White a winning send-off and, despite the layoff and missing a number of key contributors from the World Cup win, John Smit and company managed that goal without too much difficulty as they defused the Welsh Dragons’ challenge and scored a comfortable 34-12 victory.
Not surprisingly, there were some signs that the Boks were not in peak form. The lineouts, without kingpin Victor Matfield to rule the roost, lacked their usual dominance, while the defence, although well organised, didn’t display quite the level of knock-’em-down first-time tackling exhibited in the World Cup.
However, given the long break from match play, and the fact that the Welsh players are in in the middle of their season, it was a good performance from South Africa, who showed off the invaluable ability to convert opportunities into points almost every time they ventured deep into the home team’s half.
The win ensured the Springboks remain atop the world rankings and it also saw John Smit becoming the first man to lift the new Prince William Trophy, which was handed over by the royal himself.
There was clearly an air of confidence about the Springboks and, after the game, Smit described the contest as “fun” to a television interviewer, while holding his daughter on an arm.
Paid tribute to White
He paid tribute to Jake White, saying the test had been a celebration of the impact the outgoing coach had had on the lives of the players.
The excellent relationship between the coach and the captain is something that has stood out since the Springboks lifted the World Cup and it is doubtful that South African rugby has ever witnessed a better rapport between the Bok team leaders.
During the match, Wales enjoyed more possession and territory, but they couldn’t break down the Springboks’ defences excepting through kicks, which helped the Dragons cross the South African tryline twice. Contrast that with the SA attack which when presented with opportunities sliced the Welsh defences to shreds to run in five tries.
Francois Steyn got the scoreboard ticking after four minutes when he nailed a long distance penalty attempt to put South Africa 3-0 in front.
Wales, meanwhile, were holding their own in terms of territory and possession, but the Boks looked stronger at scrum time, although they conceded a few balls on their throw-in at lineout time.
It took until halfway through the first half for the Springboks to crack the home team’s defences.
Attacking from a lineout, the ball was taken into a ruck and made available quickly. It was moved to the left and a short pass from flyhalf Andre Pretorius put Juan Smith through a gap. He handed off a would-be tackler and then carried a second player over as he slid across the line for opening try of the contest.
Pretorius added the extras to put South Africa 10-0 ahead.
Wales should have reduced the deficit to seven points after 25 minutes, but James Hook pulled a sitter of a penalty to the left of the uprights.
Three minutes later, the Springboks moved further ahead. After surging deep into the Wales half down the left, the ball was moved smartly to the right where Jaque Fourie found himself with an easy run in to score in the right-hand corner.
The conversion was off target, but the lead had increased to 15 points.
Superb planned move
Fourie added a second try only three minutes after his first after a superb planned move from an attacking lineout.
The ball was fed to the backline where an inside pass put winger JP Pietersen into a gap. He offloaded with good timing and finally Fourie raced through onto a pass that put him in the clear for a well-executed five-pointer to the left of the posts.
Pretorius slotted the easy conversion to extend SA’s lead to 22-0.
With halftime just two minutes away, Wales finally got themselves onto the scoreboard.
Attacking down the left, fullback Morgan Stoddart kicked ahead. The ball kept low, not bouncing up as Ruan Pienaar expected, and the Welsh recovered just short of the tryline.
Colin Charvis then forced his way over for his 22nd try in tests, making him the leading try scorer among forwards in history.
Hook failed with the conversion attempt, leaving South Africa 17 points clear as the halftime whistle sounded with the score 22-5 in favour of the world champions.
Buoyed by their try just before the break, the Welsh started the second half determined to make further inroads into the Springboks’ lead, but they were once again undone by the clinical finishing of the men in green and gold.
Working the ball well from the left to the right, Bryan Habana made the running for the South Africans when he raced through a half gap. Once the Bok flyer was on his way there was no stopping South Africa.
He drew the final man in defence and passed out to JP Pietersen who cantered over for an easy try.
Another conversion by Pretorius made the score 29-5 in South Africa’s favour.
A few minutes later, SA lost substitute Albert van den Berg for 10 minutes when he was sinbinned for playing the ball on the ground with the Welsh pressing on South Africa’s tryline.
In his absence, Wales applied the pressure, but they couldn’t find a way through the South African defence until Hook put in a cross-kick into the corner where Stoddart gathered, fell down, and grounded the ball before being pushed over the sideline.
Hook, from a difficult angle, nailed the conversion to move Wales into double-figures at 29-12 in arrears.
With a little more than 10 minutes to play, South Africa again demonstrated their ability to strike from broken play when Ryan Kankowski crowned his debut with a fine try.
From a turnover, the ball was moved to the right. Kankowski received it with two men outside of him and one defender to beat.
Sensing that the man in front of him was in two minds, he threw a dummy and raced away through the gap to score from 30 metres out.
Francois Steyn fluffed the conversion, but it mattered little as the Springboks went on to a convincing 34-12 win.
The victory brought South Africa’s record for 2007 to 14 wins in 17 tests, including the last 10 in succession.
It also brought Jake White’s record as Springbok coach to 36 wins in 54 tests, with one draw, for a win rate of percent 68.
His last test under his belt, White now has only the Boks’ match against the Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday to oversee and then it is all over for the man who led South Africa to the Rugby World Cup title in Paris.