With Wales leading 16-10 with 25 minutes remaining, South Africa’s critics must have been preparing their damning post-match soundbites and drafting their scathing columns.
The side that finished bottom of the recent Tri-Nations were sure to be lambasted as past it, an old, creaking wreck whose former glories were being tainted. Wales were on the cusp of recording only their second win over South Africa in 26 Tests.
But, as Victor Matfield, John Smit and Bryan Habana trudged off, replacement hooker Bismarck du Plessis revitalised the reigning champions, who eventually scraped through to win 17-16. In the end, the South Africa side – with the starting XV boasting 815 caps – had the nous needed to get out of the hairiest of situations.
It was an example of ruthlessness that many aren’t sure current World Cup favourites New Zealand possess.
In the aftermath, Wales consoled themselves with the battling display that has seen their odds for World Cup success come in to 50/1 from 80/1. Much was made about James Hook’s penalty that wasn’t, while others noted that in Wales’ last four games against the Springboks, they’ve not lost by more than five points.
But points aren’t awarded for near misses, and the facts are that the 2007 winners are off the mark with four points in Pool D, while Wales have only a single point to their name with a tough tie against Samoa next week.
Warren Gatland’s men will find qualification tough to come by, particularly with group leaders Fiji also looking in menacing form against Namibia.
South Africa meanwhile, will count themselves fortunate. They’re out from 8/1 to 10/1 to defend their title, and they too, will be tested by their remaining group opponents.
But this all means that should they, as expected, make the quarter-finals, they will be thoroughly match ready, just as they were in 2007 when they made it through another tough pool including England, Tonga and Samoa. In particular the duel with Wales echoed a narrow pool win over Tonga four years ago.
It’s debatable whether the All Blacks and Australia, with few genuine threats in their groups, will be able to boast the same. England, following a similarly underwhelming-yet-successful display against Argentina, will also be attracting some worried looks from the tournament favourites given their similar penchant for building from a slow start.
Both Peter de Villiers and Martin Johnson will be reminding their respective squads about the old adage regarding marathons and sprints. Should both sides continue on their cold and unassuming road to the quarters, the 25/1 on a repeat of the 2007 final could prove tempting.