It was billed as the battle of the hemispheres, the world champions against the winners of the Six Nations, but at times it was like men against boys. That might sound a bit unfair to Ryan Jones' Grand Slammers, but their coach, Warren Gatland, offered no excuses after a tough day in Bloemfontein.
The New Zealander likened some of his players to "rabbits in the headlights" and said he was "a little bit embarrassed" by the scoreline. South Africa scored four tries to two.
"At the end of the day we weren't good enough and we were physically dominated by a better side," Gatland said. "I am a little bit embarrassed by the performance because we came here with high hopes and expectations. Even though we were talking coming into the game about confidence and self-belief, we didn't demonstrate it.
We had players who carried the ball well in the Six Nations, but at times there were eyes up, looking for the tackler, and some of the players were like rabbits startled in the headlights.
"But we can't throw in the towel. We have got to be a lot more accurate and disciplined next week. In the first half we could have been in the game because there were a few opportunities we didn't take and there were a few soft penalties. I thought we scrummaged well, but the line-out didn't function at all. There is plenty to work on."
The Springboks, playing their first game under a new coach, Peter de Villiers, fielded only five of the starting line-up from the 2007 World Cup final in Paris. Wales started with nine of their 2008 Grand Slam side.
Wales made five handling errors in the first 11 minutes, in the face of some tigerish South African defence. Butch James kicked four penalties in the first 23 minutes, converted a mesmeric try from Conrad Jantjes and then kicked a fifth penalty on the stroke of half-time.
That last kick came after Wales, at last holding on to the ball for more than a few phases, made a try for their full-back, Jamie Roberts. It started with some broken-field running from Shane Williams, and Matthew Rees and Ian Gough joined in. Williams was involved twice more before Sonny Parker bounced off two tacklers to give Roberts a run to the left corner.
Stephen Jones' touchline conversion cut the gap to nine points and Wales began the second period positively, yet they were bedevilled by familiar problems, spilling passes and conceding turnovers. When Ryan Jones lost the ball in a maul six minutes after the re-start, John Smit set up the centre Jean de Villiers for another try.
Defence was the key for Wales during the Grand Slam—they conceded two tries in five games. When the scrum-half Bolla Conradie set up a try for the No 8 Pierre Spies, they had conceded more than that in 55 minutes here. The tourists' response was at least pleasing on the eye, a long pass from James Hook finding Mark Jones, who released Morgan Stoddart.
The replacement full-back freed Shane Williams on the left. Williams was up against the covering Bryan Habana and he stepped inside, racing to the posts for his 42nd Test try.
If that was something for Welsh fans to savour, the truth was it was much too little, far too late. Habana almost responded, but was held up over the line, although the Springboks did round off proceedings with a try from Percy Montgomery.
He came on as a replacement in the second half, winning his 95th cap. His try took his points tally against Wales to 97 in eight outings—10 years on from his 31 points in an infamous 96-13 thrashing in Pretoria, where the two sides will meet again next weekend.
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