The first quarter-final of the weekend saw a wounded Wales front up to face a resurgent South Africa. The ominous nature of the Springboks' improving performances made them the favourites, but Wales had shown that they should be counted out at your detriment.
In Dan Biggar they had a fly-half who can kick his goals, and control and change the game when necessary. Their pack contains battle-hardened quality that can compete with the best in the world, and they have players like Jamie Roberts and George North who can smash through any defence, and Tyler Morgan and Gareth Davies have looked very impressive despite their lack of experience.
However, their strength in depth was pushed to its limits by injury and, compared to South Africa, possibly did not possess the same level of strike power throughout the squad. What they had proven was that as a unit they are stronger than the sum of their parts, and for that reason, it was always going to be a close affair.
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A key to Welsh victory would be to get off to a quick start; allow their momentum game to gather steam, and the recent South African frailties manifest. For the first quarter, that was exactly what they did.
Wales played the majority of rugby, looking the far more energetic side and making a huge number of meters per carry. South Africa's physicality was missing, and their immense lock combination was made to look mortal.
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But for all their territory, possession, and penetration they just didn't make it count on the scoreboard. After numerous phases they seemed to run out of ideas, and they didn't commit enough numbers to prevent the back row from securing turn over after turn over. Schalk Burger, in particular, was a colossus all game, making himself highly effective in every contact situation on a frequent basis.
When South Africa attacked, however, they didn't show anything more incisive than Wales, but impatience in defence and a lack of discipline gave Handre Pollard early opportunities to build a lead which he duly took.
Wales became desperate
Wales desperately needed a score to gain reward for their endeavours and, as has so often been the case, it was Dan Biggar with the answer. A poor clearance kick gave him space to run back into South African territory where he put up a pin point high ball which he expertly gathered at the expense of full-back Willie Le Roux. He offloaded to the other star of the tournament Gareth Davies, to put him in for yet another vital try.
It looked like the post was going to be the only thing preventing Wales from heading into half time in the lead, but once again Biggar stepped up and immediately compensated by slotting a rare drop goal.
In the second half South Africa played with much greater intent. They were worth their penalty chances but Pollard's radar seemed to have been left in the changing room as he started missing, keeping Wales well in the game.
The main thing that kept Wales in contention was the quality of their defence in every area. They tackled expertly on the gain line with every man standing up to the power runners like Lood De Jager. They held up in the scrum much better than expected, halted the mauls legally, diffused the high ball threat, and secured some truly spectacular turnovers. Sam Warburton was excellent in this area, as was Gethin Jenkins who justified his place despite a few errors in attack.
Anscombe the weak link
Wales' experienced players stood tall with Roberts smashing over the gain line with frightening ferocity. Morgan also stepped up and had another impressive game, keeping Jesse Kriel quiet. The weak link was Garerth Anscombe at the back, who looked like a deer in the headlights on several occasions.
The game stood on a knife edge with one point separating the teams until late on. It took a moment of absolute genius to break the deadlock, and in the end it was the decisive factor. South Africa had a promising scrum position and got the wheel to open up the blindside with Duane Vermeulen used to his advantage, drawing in two men and producing one of the highlights of the tournament with a spectacular offload to Petrus Fourie Du Preez who scampered to the corner.
The whole match was a brutal collision that either team could have won. The lead chopped and changed because neither team ever looked likely to create any breathing space. The quality of the breakdown competition was of the highest quality which made it awesome viewing for fans of the physical.
This might have been another instance where the test was the best thing for South Africa's chances. Since their first defeat they have cruised powerfully through the group stages and a true test against Wales will have sharpened them. Heading into the semi-finals, however, they will need to continue their upward trend to have a chance of toppling the near-perfect All Blacks. Their ball carriers will have to be even more destructive, and they will need to better equipped to bring players like Kriel into the game more often.
Can South Africa match up to the mighty All Blacks in the semi-final? Give your opinion in the comment box below!
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