South Africa opened its Rugby World Cup defense by coming back to beat Wales 17-16 and avoid the first upset of the 20-nation tournament in New Zealand. Australia and Ireland also began with victories.
The Springboks, the No. 3 team in the International Rugby Board’s rankings, trailed Wales 16-10 in Wellington last night, though rallied with Francois Hougaard’s converted try with 15 minutes remaining. Wales missed a drop goal attempt and penalty kick in the last 10 minutes.
“We’ll take a lot out of it,” South Africa captain John Smit said at a news conference. “A win in the World Cup like that is probably more valuable than just running away with it by 40 points.”
Two-time champion Australia began yesterday’s program of games by pulling away from Italy with 26 second-half points to win 32-6 in Auckland. Ireland defeated the U.S. 22-10 in the other Pool C match, which was played in slippery conditions in New Plymouth.
Wales came the closest to beating a higher-ranked team on the opening weekend after New Zealand, Scotland, Fiji, France and England also began their campaigns with victories. England, the 2003 champion, was the only one of those teams which failed to secure the maximum five competition points for scoring at least four tries. The 45-day tournament resumes Sept. 14 with three matches.
In Wellington, replacement back Hougaard scored a 65th-minute try that Morne Steyn converted to push South Africa ahead after Wales had taken a six-point lead with 25 minutes left. It was the first World Cup match decided by a single point since Australia beat Ireland 17-16 at the 2003 edition.
The Springboks, seeking to win rugby’s four-yearly championship for the third time, held on for the victory in a match in which Wales had 60 percent of the possession though only managed one try through No. 8 Toby Faletau.
“For us to have 60 percent of possession is a massive step in terms of where we’ve come as a team,” Wales coach Warren Gatland told reporters. “At the end of the day, we weren’t quite clinical enough to win the game. Good sides take disappointment on the chin and they face up next week.”
Minutes after Hougaard darted over for his try, Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland failed with a close-range drop goal attempt that would have put his team ahead. James Hook missed a 72nd-minute penalty and also had a first-half penalty waved away by the touch judges that appeared to have gone between the posts on television replays.
“I thought it was over,” Wales winger Shane Williams said in a televised interview. “We could have won the game in other ways. It’s disappointing that we missed a couple of kicks. Rhys went for a drop goal and came agonizingly close as well. It just didn’t seem to be our day.”
Second-ranked Australia pulled away from Italy with 26 points in 20 minutes at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland. The teams were tied 6-6 at the break with two penalties apiece.
“Getting that result was key,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said in a televised interview. “We’ve got a lot of respect for the Italian side. They’re tough, they defend very well and they’ll create some grief for some teams.”
Australia, the world champion in 1991 and 1999, is rated the tournament’s second-favorite behind host New Zealand after last month winning its first Southern hemisphere championship in a decade.
Ben Alexander, Adam Ashley-Cooper, James O’Connor and Digby Ioane all touched down as the Wallabies took advantage of gaps in the tiring Italian defense to claim a bonus point.
Impact Off Bench
O’Connor, suspended for the Tri-Nations title-clinching win over the All Blacks for missing Australia’s World Cup squad announcement, also booted three conversions after coming on as a 47th-minute replacement. Deans used all seven reserves.
“The guys coming off the bench had a real impact,” said Ashley-Cooper. “They changed the dynamic of the game.”
The Wallabies top Pool C with five points, one ahead of Ireland. The top two teams from each of the four groups advance to the quarterfinals.
In New Plymouth, the U.S. restricted an Ireland team ranked 10 places higher to a 3-0 lead until the last play of the first half, when winger Tommy Bowe sliced through a gap and Jonathan Sexton converted to make it 10-0.
James Paterson’s 54th-minute penalty kick made it 10-3 before Rory Best and Bowe added further tries for the Irish in wet conditions at Stadium Taranaki. Paul Emerick scored an intercept try in the final minute, which was converted by Nese Malifa to end the match.
“You have to win ugly at times,” Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll said at a news conference. “Today might not have been a thing of beauty but we got across the line.”
The teams observed a moment’s silence before kickoff and wore black armbands on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Eagles earlier attended a memorial service in the west coast city on New Zealand’s North Island.
“In the grand scheme of things, this is a game,” U.S. captain Todd Clever said in a televised interview. “We’re talking about thousands of lives. I’m so glad that we were able to pay our respects to them.”