Champions South Africa were the latest of rugby’s heavyweights forced to scrap for an opening win at the World Cup when they escaped with a 17-16 victory over Wales to open their title defence on Sunday.
In the first match on day three of tournament, Australia, for one half at least, gave notice that their young team will be strong contenders to take away the Springboks’ crown with a James O’Connor-inspired 32-6 victory over Italy.
Ireland, however, failed to dispel the dark clouds that gathered over their camp in the run-up to the tournament with a scrappy 22-10 victory over a United States team fired by the marking of the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks on their country.
England and France both laboured to opening wins on Saturday but neither came as close to losing as the Springboks, who had a late try from Francois Hougaard and a misdirected drop goal attempt from Welshman Rhys Priestland to thank for their victory.
“We did everything but win the game,” said Wales coach Warren Gatland. “Our players will be devastated but that’s sport, that’s the drama of it. We just have to take it on the chin and move forward.”
South Africa made the best possible start to the Pool D match in Wellington, playing expansive rugby and getting their reward when fullback Frans Steyn burst through two tackles to score the opening try after four minutes.
Wales regathered, however, and dominated territorially for much of the rest of the match, taking a 16-10 lead when number eight Toby Faletau slid over the line for a try and James Hook converted 14 minutes into the second half. The Springboks proved with their 2007 triumph that they are nothing if they are not battlers and when their chance came, they took it.
On a rare incursion into the Wales 22, they battered away at the red ranks before replacement winger Hougaard sprang through a huge hole in the defensive line and touched down under the posts. “Wales, to us, are always a great challenge,” said South Africa coach Peter de Villiers.