Wales’ Tour of South Africa: Deja Vu

IT ALL STARTED with a Jordan Williams try at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea during a “Probables v Possibles” fixture, it all ended with scuffed attempt of a drop goal from over 40 metres by Dan Biggar to claim Wales’ first ever victory on South African soil. The meat between the two slices of bread in this sandwich is varied like a well-known packet of “Random” sweets.

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Photo – InTheLoose

Warren Gatland’s squad travelled to South Africa following the first official internal warm-up match for a decade, last taken place at St. Helen’s before the concept of regions even existed, with their captain, without either first choice full-back, hooker or a specialised openside flanker. First up was a match against the Port Elizabeth based Southern Kings. It was the first match for the Kings as they prepare for the Currie Cup having lost a Super Rugby play-off to the Lions last year. They faced a travelling Welsh side which included James Hook, recently signed for Gloucester at fly-half for the first time in over 2 years who ran out winners by 34 points to 12. Dan Lydiate captained his country for the first time as youngsters Matthew Morgan, Rhodri Williams and Gareth Davies all stood out the Tuesday before the Saturday test match.

Wales faced an almost full-strength South African side in a sadly quite empty Kings Park Stadium Durban, who had beaten a World XV side a week earlier after a tight first half. The Boks’ scored 4 tries in the first 40 minutes and were up by 19 points, which stretched to 22 by full time, with a final score of 38 to 16. Willie le Roux was superb for the home side, if his from continue through to the Rugby Championship he could easily be considered for the IRB Player of the Year Award, whilst the Welsh side seemed tired, lacked experience and calls for experienced internationals like Adam Jones and Mike Phillips to be replaced for the 2nd test were being made following the match. The only glimmer of hope shown was Alex Cuthbert’s ability to beat a man with his unorthodox style of running, not many people were looking forward to the second test and final match of Welsh rugby’s calendar in Nelspruit.

Wales, led by Alun Wyn Jones for a second-time running, in Sam Warburton’s absence, and personally should be the national team’s permanent captain started well, anything was better than last week’s empty and drab appearance. Mike Phillips made some breaks, the forwards hit rucks clinically and Jamie Roberts’ love affair with South African rugby pitches continued. Wyn-Jones’ men played themselves into a 17 point by the 20 minute mark, with Steve Walsh clearly favouring them at rucks and scrums. Trues came through the afore-mentioned Racing-Metro centre and Alex Cuthbert, but by half-time, Victor Matfield’s side, who was making a record 112th appearance for a player in the green of South Africa, closed the gap to 3, 14-17. Before the final whistle was blew, Wales played temporarily with 13 men, with Luke Charteris and Dan Biggar being shown yellow cards for foul play during mauls in their own 22. Despite being down a man, Wales began the second half like the first and the Scarlets hooker Ken Owens crossed for a try after Walsh intervened with the TMO decision, the score evolved smoothly for Wales as they were up by 30 to 17 with a quarter of an hour to play and heading for a first ever victory in South Africa, and only second ever over the Rainbow Nation.

With just over 10 minutes to play South Africa found themselves in Welsh territory, having to score two converted tries to claim a victory and the Series. The star man from Durban, Willie Le Roux, spotted a gap, crossed the try line with his signature low dive, Morne Steyn added the 2 points, and it was a 6 point game with 5 minutes to play. Following the restart Wales won a scrum in the South African half, a scrum which had seen young Samson Lee hold his own against both Tendai Mtwarirwa and Conie Oosthuizen throughout the 80, this time the Kiwi ref Walsh, who holds a licence to referee through the Australian Rugby Union blew for a penalty and Morne Steyn sent his forward pack downfield. Wales were still comfortable, even defending within their own 22, but the Cheetahs full-back, who was close to joining Montpellier this time last year found some more space but this time passed the ball on to his three-quarter partner Cornelius Hendricks. Hendricks skipped through the ghost-like George North who should have done better by dragging the Boks winger’s feet into touch, but was barged into touch by the covering Scarlets full-back Lee Williams. Referee Walsh went upstairs to seek video aid and found that Williams had not used his arms but only his shoulder to refrain Hendricks from scoring a try. After consultation, Walsh blew for a penalty and the former Blue Bulls out-half, Morne Steyn slotted over from straight in front of the post. The Springboks were ahead for the first time under two minutes to play. Within those couple of minutes Dan Biggar transpired to miss two drop-goal attempts from over 40 metres, when the forwards should have taken control, by playing the phases and waiting for Springbok foul play at the breakdown, the match ended 31-30, with Wales losing once again to a Southern Hemisphere side.

One can’t point a finger at one person alone, Wales held leads of more than 10 points twice, and were ahead by 13 points with 15 minutes to play. It’s reoccurring theme in Welsh rugby both internationally and in the Heineken Cup, the question needs to be asked, how does Welsh rugby become more clinical? A million dollar question to ponder over before Warren Gatland prepares his side for the Autumn tests, with chance for revenge over the Springboks during the final game of their season on November the 29th.