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Great expectations weigh heavily on Wales

Tom Fordyce | 20:16 GMT, Saturday, 8 November 2008

smit_nose_ap_438.jpg
What a difference a year makes.

12 months ago, in the pre-Gatland, pre-Grand Slam world, Wales would have been roared off the Millennium Stadium pitch had they chased down world champions South Africa to within five points.

Not any more. Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards have transformed this team, but with great deeds come great expectations. When you've tasted vintage champagne, cava just doesn't cut it any more.

"I'm furious," said Gatland afterwards, flatter than a pancake that's been sat on by Schalk Burger. "Big teams nail big moments, but we didn't."

gatland_edwards438_getty.jpgIn November last year Wales were thumped 34-12 by the Springboks. In June they shipped 80 points in two Tests.

By those margins, a stirring comeback from 17 points down to be within a few yards of a win should represent a mood-lifting result.

The difference with this team, and this coaching set-up, is that second best - even by the skinniest, unluckiest of margins, isn't enough.

The mood among the players afterwards was as if they'd been thumped. Skipper Ryan Jones was barely audible in his post-match press conference, mumbling into the microphone with the expression of a man who'd banked his life savings with Lehman Brothers.
Tom Shanklin just kept shaking his head. "Top teams win these games," he muttered, "and we are a team who should be winning these."

They all knew that, despite shipping as many tries in the first 50 minutes as they did in 400 minutes of Six Nations action earlier this year, they'd let slip a glorious chance to take just a second win over the Springboks in 102 years of trying.

In all the doom and gloom, it was almost easy to lose sight of the many positives the watching Lions management combo of Gerald Davies and Ian McGeechan would have noted down.

Wales dominated possession and territory against a team who never let them get close on the summer tour, snuffing out almost any attacking threat from the visitors in the entire second half.

Not for nothing was South Africa captain John Smit staggering around afterwards with three freshly-sewn stitches across his nose.

"We'll feel it on Sunday with all the work we had to do," he admitted.

"They have improved without a doubt, and the greatest aspect was their defence - they stopped us playing the sort of rugby we wanted to play."

The two new caps for Wales had the sort of debuts young Welshmen dream of.

Andy Powell spun and stepped past defenders like a man auditioning for Strictly Come Dancing. Leigh Halfpenny had watched Wales's last home match, the Grand Slam decider against France, in Edwards' bar on St Mary Street. Here he looked as at home as Shane Williams on the other wing.

The second-half comeback even brought back memories of Twickenham last February.

Had Wales won their own line-out deep in opposition territory with just a few minutes to go, or the otherwise faultless Lee Byrne not dropped the ball from the subsequent clearance, they might even have pinched it.

This year, however, might is not enough. It's all about should and did.

Wales broke through the South African line with greater ease than they could ever have hoped. What they couldn't do, for the first time in Gatland's reign, was touch down for a single try.

"What hurts most is that when you get behind sides you have to show composure," bemoaned backs coach Rob Howley.

"When you play for Wales you're a team player, but I felt that we created space out there and then made individual decisions. We just didn't have that vision and belief, and as a result we lost the game."

It was left to Edwards to try to lift the sombre mood.

"If you look over the last 12 months, you'd take a lot of heart from how we've developed as a team," he said.

"We're all hungry for that next level, but if you look at the England and South African teams that won the World Cup, it was a journey for them. On the way they made mistakes and lost tight matches as we did today.

"We're only 12 months into our journey, and these experiences will make us stronger and more determined. There's no doubt we have the talent, the physicality, power and fitness levels to compete with these teams and beat them."

In the long term, the result might do Wales good. Every player spoke of a renewed determination, of having learned from coming up again against one of the best sides in the world.

Those lessons might yet be put into practice against the Wallabies and All Blacks in the forthcoming weeks.

The trouble, as Gatland put it, is that "the thing about experience is that you have to take your pain."

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