Knock-out blow eludes Wales as Boks find sucker-punch
It was the classic match-up: gnarled old champ versus young pretender; old smarts versus youthful vigour; seen it, done it versus still to prove anything much.
In a compelling World Cup encounter in Wellington, Wales proved they could be contenders one day. But you have got to rip the title away from a champion, and unlike in boxing, in rugby union scorecards rarely lie.
While you could not exactly see South Africa growing old on the pitch - with 815 caps shared between the starting XV going into the match, the joints had been creaking for some time - there were times when they resembled some ancient edifice being laid siege to, marauding Welshmen dismantling them bit by bit.
First veteran lock Victor Matfield was helped from the pitch, before battered skipper John Smit made way, and then wing Bryan Habana. With 15 minutes remaining, it seemed like we were witnessing the end of an era. And then somebody flicked a switch.
The old adage has it that a fighter's punch is the last thing to go, but actually it is his pride. Sharks hooker Bismarck du Plessis having been injected, South Africa bolted into life. A few desperate swings, and unfortunately for Wales, one of them connected.
Wales look shattered after narrowly losing to South Africa Photo: Getty
Talent, Wales have in spades. Skipper Sam Warburton, 22, and his fellow back-row Toby Faletau, 20, put in monumental shifts. Fly-half Rhys Priestland, in only his fifth Test, had an assured game after a shaky start, while Jamie Roberts, playing on the gain line, was bone-judderingly direct.
Wales showed tremendous character, too. Beforehand, coach Warren Gatland had been typically bullish about his side's chances, but that all looked like so much foolish talk when Frans Steyn bounced off Shane Williams and James Hook for an early try.
Wales, it seemed, were destined to be broken on the steel-rimmed wheels of the South African juggernaut.
But Wales had confidence in their game-plan, which consisted of moving the ageing Springbok pack all over the park and creating space to work in. As the game wore on and the ball-starved South Africans grew more weary, Wales' three-quarters began to surge through gaps and blast through tackles, but, except for once, there was always a last line of defence.
There will be Wales fans who will say they were robbed. A first-half penalty by Hook sailed high over the right-hand post and he seemed convinced it had ducked inside, but referee Wayne Barnes chose not to refer it upstairs. Video replays were inconclusive at the time of writing - although new angles might have come to light since.
However, Gatland, to his credit, refused to blame Barnes for the defeat. "I'm proud of the effort the players put in but we didn't win the game," said the New Zealander. "We put ourselves in with a chance to win but I think we weren't quite good enough."
To be good enough a side has to deliver the coup de grace when their opponents are on the ropes and their defences are down, and Wales were unable to do that. First Priestland snatched at a very makeable drop-goal attempt, before Hook missed a late penalty from out wide. And down the stretch, they left themselves open to a sucker punch.
The Welsh public has had more than its fair share of false dawns when it comes to its national rugby team, but on the evidence of Sunday night, they have the core of what could become a very useful side. And they might get another chance to prove just how useful before this tournament is through.
Samoa and Fiji will not be easy, that is a given, but both of those sides will fancy their chances against a rickety South Africa, too. Consequently, and you never know, there is a chance that Wales could still win their group. And then? Given some of the wonky scorelines we have had in the last few days, which suggests a levelling of the playing field in international rugby, who knows.
On an opening weekend of a World Cup when upsets threatened but never transpired, Wales were perhaps the true stars. Not 'brave' or 'plucky' or any number of adjectives you will see in newspaper headlines, but a class outfit that does not realise just yet exactly how classy it is.