South Africa vs. Wales: Score and Lessons Learned from Nelspruit Test
South Africa vs. Wales saw a cruel, last-gasp 31-30 victory for the hosts in Nelspruit.
Wales had been on the verge of a historic victory and led up until the 77th minute when a Liam Williams shoulder charge saw the Springboks awarded with penalty try. Morne Steyn converted from under the posts to break Welsh hearts.
The Springboks were on a streak of 14 consecutive victories over northern hemisphere teams. Wales have only beaten South Africa once since 1904. On Saturday, they came as close as possible to adding to that record.
Wales led by 17 points at one stage but two yellow cards prompted a Springbok fightback that robbed Wales of a deserved victory. Warren Gatland and his Welsh side will leave Nelspruit empty-handed, save for the lessons they will have learned in this agonising defeat.
Wales Won First 20 Minutes
It has been a long old season for most of the Welsh squad. They provided the foundations of the British and Irish Lions squad in Australia. Almost a year later and they are on tour again, this time in South Africa.
If a weary Wales were going to live with South Africa, they would have to start quickly. And they did.
In the first 20 minutes, the Springboks had only 37 per cent possession and were 10-0 down. By 25 minutes into the tie, South Africa trailed by 17 points. After being 28-9 down at half-time in the first Test, Wales gave themselves a real chance to respond by striking the first blows.
After tries from Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert, Wales led 17-0 and the game seemed to be heading only one way. Wales can take encouragement from the way they played in this first 20 minutes, but they will seek to address how they let the Springboks back into it from this position.
Poor Discipline Undoes Welsh Start
On 30 minutes, the tide turned. As Luke Charteris hauled the South African driving maul to the ground, he took Welsh hopes with it. The 6'10" lock saw yellow for his infringement, and the Springboks seized their opportunity.
A penalty try followed as the gap was narrowed to 10 points. Wales were reduced to 13 men, with Dan Biggar joining Charteris in the sin bin, and with the Welsh defensive line gaping, South Africa exploited the extra space. Cornal Hendricks crossed for his first international try and the gap had gone from 17 points to three in the space of a minute.
All Wales' hard work in the first 20 minutes had been undone by ill discipline. Former Wales flanker, Martyn Williams said on BBC Radio Wales that the seven minute window with 13 men was something Wales could not have prepared for:
It was an incredible couple of minutes. When Luke Charteris was sin-binned, you've trained for a forward to go off but when you're down to 13 it's very difficult.
It was perhaps fitting that the tie was decided by an act of Welsh indiscipline. The game had turned on two Welsh sin-binnings and was put to rest by a penalty try. Liam Williams's no-arms tackle prevented Cornal Hendricks crossing in the corner and gave Morne Steyn a kick to win under the posts.
It was a game of fine margins. This is perfectly illustrated by the significant final act of the match. Had Hendricks crossed unimpeded, Steyn would have faced a tough, pressure kick from the touchline to win the game. As it was, he was afforded a simple shot from beneath the sticks.
Half-Time Allowed Wales to Regroup
Half-time came at an ideal moment for Wales. With the tourists down to 13 men, it was only a matter of time before rampant 15-man force of the Springboks eliminated the deficit.
However, half-time broke up the suspension period. It afforded Wales a breather and allowed them to recover energy. Warren Gatland's side did not deserve to go behind in this game. However, if half-time had not fallen when it did, they might have done so much earlier.
As it happened, fears of a Welsh collapse were temporarily allayed by a Ken Owens try shortly after the break. Despite this and even with the regroup of half-time, Wales were never able to fully put the Springboks beyond arm's reach. When the Welsh line was eventually broken by some Willie le Roux magic, there was a sense of inevitability about the South African score that eventually snatched away a Welsh win.
South Africa may have left it late, but were it not for the haven of half-time, the Welsh may have found themselves trailing far earlier.
Driving Maul Sprinbok's Source of Strength
It is testament to Wales that the only weapon working for the Springboks was their driving maul. The Welsh fast start disrupted the South Africans, who only found a route back into the game through their powerful lineout shoves.
It is hardly surprising that a South African lineout marshalled by Victor Matfield proved so effective. The 37-year-old has over 100 Test caps and it showed. Derick Hougaard, speaking on BBC Radio Wales, argued that Springbok drives swung the game on the 30-minute mark.
South Africa were at their best with that driving maul. The complexion of this game has changed in the space of just a couple of minutes with the penalty try and two yellow cards.
When the Springboks were chasing the game in the final five minutes, the driving maul continued to offer them hope of a reprieve. It provided a consistent source of penalties and front-foot ball that, ultimately, Wales were unable to resist.
A Game Fought on the Gainline
This was a battle fought fiercely on the gainline, where momentum swayed between both camps. In the first half, Wales stopped South Africa firmly on the gainline through their effective line speed.
In those first 40 minutes the Springboks got over the gainline in only 70 per cent of carries compared to Wales's 85 per cent. However, the two yellow cards proved pivotal. The game finished with the gainline statistics reversed, South Africa gaining 82.5 per cent of the time, Wales only 74.5 per cent.
In the second half, the ball spent 23 per cent of its time in the Welsh 22. This gives an illustration of the Springbok resurgence. Wales did extremely well to contain the carrying game of the South African side initailly. However, once the Springboks regained their gainline superiority, the Welsh defence was just waiting to crack.