An absorbing game of football saw favourites South Africa pushed all the way by an impressive Welsh outfit as Pool D lived up to its reputation as the pool of death in Wellington. The Springboks eventually claimed a 17-16 victory, but not before Wales left their imprint on the match with a flowing, exciting style of football that almost earned them a famous win.
South Africa tested the aptitude of occasional fullback James Hook early on, with immediate success; Hook spilling Morne Steyn’s high ball to gift the Springboks possession before failing to stop his opposite Francois Steyn from diving over the line in just the third minute. Wales came alive after this, earning support from a raucous crowd by playing far more enterprising rugby than their counterparts as Hook and Steyn traded penalties. Solid defence from both teams typified the half, with the Springboks calmly kicking either for territory or for chasing wings Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen while the Welsh looked to attack at pace from any position. Late field goal attempts by both teams failed to influence the 10-6 score-line an ultimately quiet first period which saw Jean de Villiers succumb to injury.
The Welsh had the best of a rapid set of opening exchanges as a hamstrung Victor Matfield became the second Springbok casualty of the night. Raking low kicks by Hook and young fly-half Rhys Preistland, utilising the strong Wellington wind more effectively than South Africa did in the first half, led to an intense period of Welsh pressure which saw them first close to within a point before going ahead in sensational style. An outstanding effort at the breakdown by the young Welsh back row regained possession deep in South African territory, before 20 year old No. 8 Toby Faletau broke through a shell-shocked Springbok outfit to give Wales a deserved lead. South Africa looked to strike back immediately but initially struggled to contain a rampant Welsh backline, led by the bustling Jamie Roberts, that looked incisive in attack and smothering in defence.
However South Africa are proud defending champions and eventually regained a foothold in the match. Advancing slowly but surely to the Welsh line and ignoring a handy shot at goal, the Africans showed their clinical side in their first foray into enemy territory. Extended pressure saw substitute Francois Hougaard score under the posts with an angled run to gain a slender 17-16 lead with twenty minutes remaining. The Welsh rallied, coming close through Priestland’s field goal attempt, before Hook saw a difficult penalty attempt sail agonisingly wide late on. However South Africa held firm to gain a hard-fought victory that sees them go second in Pool D. Wales will look to improve a sloppy start but gained the support of the crowd with their entertaining brand of attacking rugby; South Africa know they will need to lift their intensity if they are to seriously challenge for the title again in 2011.