The better of two poisons?
June 14, 2014
Cornall Hendricks touches down for a try on his debut © Getty Images
The mind went back a decade to Andy Farrell's last serious game of rugby league, for Great Britain against Australia in the final of the tri-Nations at Elland Road.
Half an hour in, with Australia running amok on the back of a Darren Lockyer masterclass Dave Hadfield, perhaps the finest active writer on either code, ruminated aloud that "I think I'm beginning to prefer the other script, when they do us in the last minute".
Watching Wales play the two southern giants against whom they reckon to have a chance during the Warren Gatland era has been to make a choice between two poisons. Is it worse to be tantalised by the Wallabies in an apparently endless series of near-misses, or beaten to a pulp by the Bokke?
So this was disappointing, but not too surprising. And there, perhaps, you have Wales's problem. They really don't surprise you. Their virtues and their limitations are well-established and they rarely seem capable of transcending either.
Deprive them of a physical edge and they struggle, as both England and Ireland proved last season. And is there any opponent against which it is harder to gain a physical edge than South Africa ?
Which is not to say that this was a simple battle of blunderbusses. Anyone who thought they'd wait a long time to see as complete a full-back display as Ben Smith's effort for the All Blacks at Dunedin had, assuming possession of the right TV channels, only a few hours to wait before Willie le Roux was unleashed in Durban.
There are undoubtedly some very fine full-blacks playing international rugby at present. But one of Wales's problems is that their kicking game seems to bring out the best in them. Mike Brown looked like the second coming of Serge Blanco at Twickenham in the spring.
Dan Biggar was one of the few Welshmen who could take some satisfaction from the afternoon. His two drop goals, particularly the second, fashioned from a low pass, were taken with cool precision. But Wales's restarts too often saw Victor Matfield taking the ball unchallenged and with time and space to move and their tactical kicking was a springboard for Springbok counters rather than a means of exerting pressure.
And Wales simply can't afford to give good teams opportunities. The record since Gatland took over shows that in 44 matches against the southern trio and in the Six Nations against France, Ireland and England they have scored 56 tries - an average of just over one and a quarter per match. That doesn't leave much margin for defensive fallibility. And once Bryan Habana had made his early incision and the Boks had taken ruthless advantage of Wales's short-handedness following Jamie Roberts' sin-binning - fair sanction for an action which was ill-judged but certainly not malicious - there was no way back.
There were some small Welsh satisfactions. Gatland's contribution to British rugby as a whole richly merits his OBE. Adam Jones similarly fully deserves his century of caps, and no player has ever merited a warmer welcome back than Matthew Rees. Wales at least did not quit, and had the satisfaction of ending the scoring with that long-range effort from Alex Cuthbert.
There was also some promise in the debuts of Gareth Davies and that most welcome of final trial bolters, Matthew Morgan. South Africa were pretty sated by the time they came on, so it is hard to know how much to make of their contributions in the last 15 minutes. But there was at least a sense of quick thought and movement during that period absent when most Welsh possession was emerging slowly, shipped laboriously by Mike Phillips and disappearing into Bokke cover in the hands of the endlessly willing but predictable Roberts.
South Africa are formidable opponents - and any national team in the world would be diminished by the absence of Leigh Halfpenny and either/both of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. Were Wales by some miracle able to field a 25 year old Gareth Edwards, Barry John, JPR, Gerald Davies and Merv the Swerve at Nelspruit next week, they'd probably lose. That group did not after all ever manage as Wales to beat either the Boks or the All Blacks.
But it might just be worth considering a thought from the cunning old devil who coached that group in the 1970s. Clive Rowlands knows scrum-halves as few others do, and he likes Mike Phillips. But he thinks that Wales should field quick hands at No.9 from the start, then use Phillips as an impact option rather than, as at present, the other way round. There's surely a similar case for one or both of James Hook and Morgan.
Some will object that Wales would surely be hammered. So they may be. But that's also what happened today with the tried and tested option. Wales can, and possibly will, continue to run in straight lines into a large and extremely unyielding green-shirted brick wall. But after 19 consecutive defeats by the southern big three, is there anything to be lost by trying something different?
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Communication error please reload the page.
Bath recorded their first Aviva Premiership victory for almost two months as they moved second in the table behind runaway leaders Northampton after subduing Recreation Ground visitors Sale 12-3
James Ward has beaten John Isner 6-7(4) 5-7 6-3 7-6(3) 15-13 to give Great Britain a 2-0 lead in their Davis Cup match against the United States
Manchester United defender Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to spitting at Newcastle striker Papiss Cisse and will have his case heard on Friday night
Katarina Johnson-Thompson broke Jessica Ennis-Hill's British record, but fell agonisingly short of the world record as she claimed pentathlon gold at the European Indoor Championships in Prague on Friday
England's Matt Ford will take a narrow lead into the third day of the Africa Open after carding a second-round 66 at East London Golf Club
Where does Anthony Davidson's record of 24 Grands Prix without a point rank him?
ESPN talks to Marcus Ericsson about the "pay driver" label, aiming for his first career points and what life was really like as a rookie during Caterham's chaotic final season
Gareth Bale says he has to be sharp in training or the other Real Madrid galacticos will quickly be on his case
Amid the glitz and glamour of modern grand prix racing it can be all too easy to forget about the men and women that keep the wheels turning. The Grand Prix Trust makes sure that's not the case
A spitting contest. Just what football needs to improve its reputation. You can always rely on football to stoop that little bit lower than you expected. Papiss Cisse of Newcastle United and Jonny Evans of Manchester United, who later protested his innoce
Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli has claimed that "someone doesn't like [him]" in a cryptic social media post
Amir Khan is unlikely to face Kell Brook this summer as he looks to negotiate a fight with Miguel Cotto in America
Jose Mourinho has praised his Chelsea team's "warrior" spirit and challenged them to fill their pockets with trophies
Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud have the "mental strength" to spearhead Arsenal's charge for Champions League qualification, according to Arsene Wenger
Luis Suarez is to return to Anfield to play in a charity match arranged by Liverpool
After Nemanja Matic twisted his ankle celebrating Chelsea's League Cup win, ESPN runs down some of the game's most ludicrous injuries
Eight years ago, Steve Bunce was offered the chance of buying a 'share' in Tyson Fury, and it would have been a shrewd investment if he had the money
Who was the 100th man to win a world championship Grand Prix?
Some of the best fighters to ever glove up have plied their trade in the Octagon - now ESPN list the 10 best who have fought under the UFC banner
Paul Butler tells Inside Boxing he turned down the chance of a trial with Liverpool in order to focus on boxing - and it was the right choice