The new look Springbok team started out frenetically and showed glimpses of promise late in the game but they weren’t consistent enough across the 80 minutes to prevent the Welsh from inflicting a 27-13 defeat at the Principality Stadium that ended a year of misery for South African rugby.
For a brief moment late in the second half it looked as if the Boks might at least be able to force a draw. They’d stabilised after a slump in mid-match and Uzair Cassiem, who was perhaps the most impressive of the three starting team debutants, drove over the line for a try that brought the Boks back to within range at 20-13 with 10 minutes to go.
Unfortunately though for the South Africans that was just the cue for the Welsh to shake off their own sluggishness and they struck back with a well worked try to flank Justin Tipuric that ended the match as a contest with four minutes to go.
The result continued the trend of this being a year for unwanted records. It was only the third win recorded by Wales against South Africa, all of those wins coming here in Cardiff, and the winning margin of 14 points eclipsed the 10 point margin they achieved in their first win over the Boks here in 1999.
The defeat meant that the South Africans will return home from a northern hemisphere tour without a win for the first time since 2002, when Rudolf Straeuli’s team lost consecutively to France, Scotland and Ireland. The Boks did draw their first game of the tour against the Barbarians at Wembley but that did not count as a test match. They have lost to England, Italy and now Wales over the past three weekends.
The loss also left the Boks with the unhappy reality that they achieved only a 33% success rate for the year, the worst in the post-isolation era over a whole calendar year. The Bok team that ended the isolation era in 1992 only won one of five test matches under the coaching of John Williams, who was summarily sacked, but that was over a period of just a few months at the end of the year.
The Boks spoke a lot about energy beforehand and they started with plenty of it but it didn’t last long enough or pose enough threats to a more experienced Wales side. There were some encouraging signs, most notably the play of Cassiem, while Pieter-Steph du Toit continued on the industrious path he has trodden all through the season with another busy performance both on defence and a carrier. Beast Mtawarira’s contributions have gotten better as the season has progressed.
But unfortunately while the Boks started playing at pace and their line-speed on defence was much better than it has been, they simply never looked co-ordinated enough or slick enough to threaten the Welsh defences, at least not until much later in the game when for a period they did pick up some semblance of onfield momentum.
The Boks enjoyed a massive ascendancy in the territorial and possession battle early on, and forced a penalty from the first scrum that flyhalf Elton Jantjies was able to kick to give the Boks a 3-0 lead after seven minutes. Jantjies kicked a later penalty but by then Leigh Halfpenny had kicked three as Wales slowly but surely took control of the game and shut the Boks out.
It has to be said that it was another game where Jantjies failed to take the opportunity presented to him. He kicked his goals but he made too many mistakes in general play and was not assertive enough. Faf de Klerk too was error-ridden and the Boks never had much of a platform to work off from their halfbacks.
There was a lot of left and right freneticism from the Boks early on but there wasn’t enough attacking variation, and for too long in the first half they still looked like a team that hadn’t been well coached. In their defence though, it does need to be noted that this was a new look team, and they’d perhaps have done better as a unit had they been given an opportunity to build into a test earlier in the season. Instead this was a case of the players coming together only this week due to many of the combinations not being selected for last week’s clash with Italy.
Unlike against England at Twickenham two weeks ago the Boks were still in the game at halftime. They hadn’t really threatened the Welsh line but they were just 12-6 behind thanks to a much improved defensive effort to that point and there were hopes at the break that perhaps they’d get an early try in the second half to galvanise them and give them much needed confidence.
Instead the early part of the second half proved to be the period when the Boks effectively lost the game. It started with them conceding a soft penalty when they’d worked themselves into a good attacking position from the kick-off, and then from the lineout that the Welsh set up from that penalty, flyhalf Dan Biggar collected his own kick ahead but De Klerk came between him and the player he was passing to.
Jamba Ulengo was back to cover so if De Klerk did knock on deliberately it was the wrong decision as he did have a choice. It may have been that De Klerk was a bit hard done by, and there were a few 50/50 calls that went against the Boks on the night, but the yellow card that De Klerk copped from referee Romain Poite effectively allowed the hosts to take charge of the game.
First Halfpenny kicked the penalty that the Welsh were awarded for the De Klerk infringement, and then there was a penalty awarded against the Boks as they showed a bit of confusion in the time they were without a scrumhalf. It was in a kickable position but this time the Welsh opted to probe the line and from the attacking lineout hooker Ken Owens was driven over the line.
Halfpenny missed his first place-kick of the night in attempting the conversion but the Welsh were suddenly 14 points ahead and like at Twickenham two weeks ago the South Africans faced a massive catch-up task that for all but a brief instant looked well beyond them.
Coetzee may be able to argue away this defeat on the basis that he was starting out with something new, but unfortunately for him he has ended the year with a lamentable record that will make it hard for his bosses to argue for a continuation into 2017.
Wales : Tries: Ken Owens (46),Justin Tipuric (75) Conversion: Leigh Halfpenny (77) Penalty Goals: Leigh Halfpenny (12, 18, 22, 34, 43)
South Africa : Try: Uzair Cassiem (70) Conversion: Patrick Lambie (71) Penalty Goals:Elton Jantjies (7, 24)