Let’s start with the obvious. Whether we attribute it to epic ‘modern’ levels of attrition, bursts of off-the-scale intensity, act of god or a poor surface simply may not matter. The fact is many supporters – not just those wiping away a tear post ‘Wlad’ – felt the premature exit from the fray of Williams, Davies and Adam Jones was both pivotal… and a crying shame. The fact that Jonathan Davies will now apparently miss the entire Autumn Series is so bleakly dispiriting I myself may need to either go into hibernation or drink myself into a November stupor. (Or a four- monther if prospects for the Six Nations are no better for the lad. Too cruel! Just too cruel!!) In short, rightly or wrongly, there was a sense that we were all denied a contest of equals.
‘Foxy’ – very much This Year’s Model for the rugby cognoscenti, following some sublime work for club, country and The Lions – departed on 13 minutes, after Williams. If something in my own heart felt that with his departure went Wales’s principal hopes those were words best not spoken – not then – in that crowded bar, full of red-scarfed womenfolk and red-faced husbands. Come the slow march of Adam Jones, however, seditious grumblings, counter to the general pre-match upfullness, openly spread. Before thirty minutes were up the flying wing, the pretty close to incomparable centre and the much-loved and respected prop had all departed with their various pains. Davies, for one, reflecting the cruel enormity of that period, welling up as he left the pitch. What could the nation do but stoically drink?
That the Williams/Davies trauma came immediately after a Springbok try is of course noteworthy – as is the slightly reckless nature of William’s attempted tackle – but Davies had already shown something of the quality which may yet have unpicked the massive and massively indomitable Springbok rearguard. The Scarlets man is surely now into the world-class category and I for one was looking forward to a fabulous midfield contest including Whitland’s finest and the fella De Villiers – a man with similar gifts and an even finer pedigree. Sadly, ’twas not to be.
The re-shuffle for the Welsh backline was particularly significant in that the best full-back in the world (discuss, with reference to Dagg and Folau?) was shifted out to the wing and the gifted but possibly not so aerially well-equipped Hook slotted in behind, with Beck coming into centre. (So three changes rather than the strictly necessary two.) Now Jimmy bach is a fine player still, one arguably better-suited to the 10-berth than the one-dimensional Priestland but alarm bells rang when he and Faletau made a nervy, communication-deficient balls-up of a fairly straightforward catch. Whilst Hook was by no means to prove a weak link, the ‘boks certainly profited by hoisting high and often into the heart of the home defence – a point Gatland returned to in his post-match reactions. No surprise that the South Africans were awesomely physical but mildly shocking for the Kiwi coach to see his home side exposed as mediocre under or indeed hoisting the high ball.
The first half, however, despite the stoppages and enforced changes, was nearly a classic; a typically wonderful pre-match atmosphere – hwyl set to its sanguine maximum – insinuating its way into the fibre of the game. Hibbard was at full throttle, visibly feeding off the energy in the ether… but he was matched rather magnificently by the beefsteak in green. The focus and level of ferocity amongst the visitors was every bit as impressive as expected but this should not deflect us from offering credit to a South African unit showing barely a glimmer of either physical or psychological frailty in the Taff-side cauldron.
Before the break the Springboks both danced towards the line – a try then, for De Villiers – and they smashed a way in for Du Plessis. Meaning they brought their A Game alright – their powerful, all-court, relentless Bigness and Strongness and Run Like Bloody Rhinos-ness. Wales responded with spirit; fire, even at times, notably from Phillips, who trod that familiar line between rage and control to good effect – especially in that testing period when Welsh bodies were being winched from the pitch. In such a batterfest, discipline would clearly be key.
Through the match there were few significant lapses… but plenty of penalties. Rolland contrived to be centre of attention by binning two props for persistent failure of the scrum, though the suspicion lurked that he had no idea which of the props (if either) was actually responsible for the difficulty. To great cheers a certain giant ‘bok flanker was dispatched for ten for swinging too Luow over Hibbard (oops – sor-ree!) but given the elite levels of violence involved the game was contested in remarkably good order. Set-pieces offered neither side a huge or decisive advantage; tackling was brutal as was ‘clearing out’ around the rucks but a sort of parity of legitimate rampage existed – again to the credit of all concerned. Gatland may have been right when he said the kicking game was most influential and this may imply some criticism of Priestland – whom many in the province think fortunate to occupy pivot.
The most delicious moment of irresistibly flowing rugby came via a kick-chase from the Springboks, extending the visitors lead to 22-15 (at that point.) Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie contrived a stunning try featuring a superb and mildly outrageous flip inside from the centre. Du Preez merely had to be there then leg it – but he was there, having sprinted fifty metres. The conversion was a gimme, and no further points were gained by either side ’til Rolland’s terminal toot some thirteen minutes later. Watching ‘live’ it was not immediately clear that Fourie had been clearly offside when the ball was first hoofed into the danger zone – and thus the try should never have stood. In ‘moral’ terms though, the score was about right.
A depleted Wales then, got beat. If that has a familiar ring – and I fear it does – this might undermine any defiant talk of a meaningful Welsh threat at World Cup 2015. Comparisons or extrapolations around relative consequences from the loss of allegedly key individuals are so spurious you’d think I just wouldn’t go there. But imagine we’re all in the pub, post-match – let’s deal in those hunches, eh?
For me Davies is a beautiful (now brawny) wunderkind-of-a-player. One who had (even by the thirteenth minute) shown he was already on it, bigtime. One who through his fabulous mixture of running and composure and deftness might be expected to make some real impact. Why? Because he’s done all that, on a stage of similar if not greater stature – the Lions tour – when the Aussies could barely live with him. So Foxy would have won the game for Wales.
Jones is an altogether different kind of icon; a man who manages to be somehow quietly, implacably, almost invisibly gargantuan and carry off a worryingly retro barnet. Feeling reassuringly like one of us – a monosyllabic but good-natured plumber, perhaps? – he is simply adored for his unchangingly sacrificial shoulder-work. Despite the absurd continental bulk that is the Springbok front row, Jones would have won the game for Wales.
I kindof jest. Perhaps wiser and fairer to say that if there are indeed, equivalents to these two in England, France, Ireland – are there, I wonder? – they too might well be thought of as irreplaceable on the big occasions, even allowing for righteous talk of the squad being everything. Hence any speculation re the summiting of that Southern Hemisphere mountain Wales keep neglecting to climb will come back to minutes 13 and 30-odd of that first half.