The Springboks overturned a 17-0 deficit to beat Wales 31-30 in Nelspruit and clinch the two-Test series. JON CARDINELLI reports.
South African rugby supporters will view the result as a fantastic turnaround. The Boks were abjectly poor in the opening quarter, conceding 17 points. However, while they were physically rattled, they never panicked, and by the end of the first half they had wrested the initiative back and narrowed the deficit to three points.
Welsh fans should be desperately disappointed. The Dragons did everything right initially, from winning the collisions to pinning the Boks in their own territory. Their defence was impressive, while their powerful backs managed to breach the Boks on two occasions.
Having established a 17-point lead, Wales should have rammed the advantage home. When they led by 13 points late in the second half, they should have gone on to clinch their first-ever win on South African soil.
But the Boks, led by the inspirational figure of Victor Matfield, made a telling response. Using all of his experience as South Africa's most capped Test player, Matfield realised the need to hit back immediately. When the Boks trailed by 17 points in the first half, Matfield turned down an opportunity to shoot for goal, and instructed his charges to set the lineout.
And while the Boks did not enjoy immediate success, Matfield's persistence eventually paid off. Wales were penalised repeatedly for infringing at the maul, and lock Luke Charteris received a yellow card.
Matfield set the maul again, and another infringement, this time by flyhalf Dan Biggar, saw Wales reduced to 13 men. Referee Steve Walsh also awarded a penalty try to South Africa, and after 33 minutes, the Boks had their first points.
Cornal Hendricks then rounded off a brilliant attacking display, and Morné Steyn's conversion edged the Boks closer. In the space of a couple of minutes, the game had swung in the Boks' favour.
But Wales continued to chase a historic win with rabid enthusiasm in the second stanza. They scored first through hooker Ken Owens, and had South Africa on the back foot for most of the half.
The Boks suffered another setback when lock Flip van der Merwe was sin-binned for taking Alun Wyn Jones out in the air. Biggar converted a penalty attempt in the 65th minute to leave the hosts needing an improbable 14 points for victory.
Again, it was left to the Boks to make a telling response. Willie le Roux may have misfired for the first 70 minutes, but obliged with the magic play when it mattered most. Steyn converted Le Roux's try to leave the Boks trailing by just six points with eight minutes to play.
Wales defended well in the dying stages, but the Boks had them stretched when Hendricks received the ball on the right wing. It was here that Wales fullback Liam Williams made the grave error of taking Hendricks out without his arms. The transgression not only handed the Boks a penalty try, but a conversion attempt from right in front of the posts. That successful kick by Steyn was what propelled the Boks into the lead with only seconds remaining on the stadium clock.
But there would be more drama yet. Wales had two more chances to win the game. Biggar missed one drop-goal attempt, and then another after his forwards had controlled possession for 17 phases.
Some will say that Wales deserved to win, and that the Boks needed some luck to get the result. However, while the Boks lacked precision and physicality at times, they showed exceptional mettle to rebound, from a 17-0 deficit in the first half, and then a 13-point deficit in the dying stages of the second. In that respect, they made a statement in Nelspruit on Saturday.
Wales had their chances, and a better side would have made those chances count.
Springboks – Tries: Penalty try (2), Cornal Hendricks, Willie le Roux. Conversions: Morné Steyn (4). Penalty: Steyn.
Wales – Tries: Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert, Ken Owens. Conversions: Dan Biggar (3). Penalties: Biggar (3).
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Wynand Olivier, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Josh Turnbull, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Subs: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Paul James, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Dan Baker, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 James Hook, 23 Matthew Morgan.
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Victor Matfield had a solid game at the lineout, and his leadership was telling in what was a close finish.
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