09/11/2011 07:46 EDT | Updated 11/11/2011 05:12 EST

Defending champion South Africa caps off challenging World Cup weekend for top contenders

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Defending champion South Africa narrowly escaped with a one-point win as all the leading contenders survived a sometimes ragged World Cup opening weekend that served up a slew of dramatic moments without delivering an upset.

Substitute back Francois Hougaard dived over for a 64th-minute try and Morne Steyn converted to give South Africa a 17-16 comeback win over Wales on Sunday night, 24 hours after 2007 finalist England surged back late for a 13-9 win over Argentina.

The Welsh were unlucky, with fullback James Hook having a penalty attempt controversially waved away in the first half and then flyhalf Rhys Priestland missing a 70th-minute dropped goal from close range that could have clinched an epic victory.

Wales coach Warren Gatland thought Hook's early shot at goal was good, and said even the Springboks thought it was three points conceded.

"We did everything but win the game," he said. "Got ourselves into a chance to win but then we weren't quite good enough.

"The players will just be devastated. We had a chance: drop goal in front of the posts. Hooky had a chance to kick (a late penalty). But that's the drama of sport. We'll just take that on the chin; we've got a bonus point out of it."

South Africa lost experienced centre Jean de Villiers and lock Victor Matfield to injuries during the match, heightening the concern for captain John Smit and his squad after the close shave.

"I tell you what, close game — nice to get through it," he said. "The greatest reward was that we came through by a point and will be a most valuable lesson for us, again fighting our way back from a pretty sticky situation.

"There's a bit of work to do. But we're pretty delighted with how this evening went."

The first eight matches of the World Cup certainly highlighted a narrowing gap between the super powers and the emerging nations.

South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England have so far shared the six World Cups between them, and France has twice reached the final. They all had struggles at times in their opening matches.

The Italians held two-time champion Australia to 6-6 at halftime on Sunday before 21-year-old utility back James O'Connor was recalled from exile and immediately sparked a four-try burst to give the Wallabies a 32-6 win to top Pool C.

The Australians came into the tournament with back-to-back wins over South Africa and New Zealand and, on paper, should have blown the Italians away but didn't.

Ireland was expected to overpower the United States in the subsequent Pool C match at New Plymouth, but struggled to breach the tough-tackling Eagles until just before halftime. The Americans were riding on emotion, having started the day with a church service to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9-11, but ran out of steam in the second half of a 22-10 defeat.

Close encounters defying expectations have been the storyline early in the tournament, which goes into a two-day recess before three more matches Wednesday.

The All Blacks, under immense pressure to win the title on home soil and end the drought since they last hosted and won the World Cup in 1987, started with a bang in the Friday night opener but slackened off in the second half of a 41-10 win over a spirited Tonga team.

On Saturday, Scotland needed two tries in the last six minutes to hold off Romania 34-24; Fiji crossed for six tries but didn't really put Namibia away in a 49-25 win; and France allowed Japan to get within four points late in the match before a spurt of three tries blew out the final score to 47-21.

Marc Lievremont was so incensed with his French lineup that he named and shamed the players he blamed for a lacklustre opener.

He said the halves didn't kick well or direct play, the second row was untidy and conceded too many penalties and backrower Imanol Harinordoquy was so casual "his conducted annoyed me."

"Our match was littered with loose play, technical mistakes, errors of discipline," Lievremont said. "Wastefulness in our finishing, wastefulness in our organization."

That all set up for a dramatic match under the glass roof on Saturday night in Dunedin, where the plucky Pumas led England for most of the match before running out of energy.

That was the closest match of the seventh edition until the last encounter of the weekend, when a youthful Wales lineup led by 22-year-old Sam Warburton took on the most experienced XV ever fielded in a bid to produce just a second win in head-to-head encounters against South Africa spanning more than a century.

"We came so close," Warburton said. "We've been quietly confident all week, but just came up short.

"Bitterly disappointed we didn't get the win but it shows we're getting closer."