Wales fell to a second defeat of the autumn internationals but pushed reigning world champions South Africa all the way at a rain soaked Principality Stadium on Saturday.
Wayne Pivac had made six changes to his starting XV that lost to New Zealand the week before, with two enforced as Will Rowlands replaced Alun Wyn Jones and Ellis Jenkins replaced Ross Moriarty, Rhys Carre was preferred to Wyn Jones at loosehead prop, while Dan Biggar, Nick Tompkins and Louis Rees-Zammit were recalled after becoming available for selection.
A tense opening 10 minutes saw the home side with the majority of the ball after winning the early aerial battle, but after getting into South Africa territory and earning a penalty advantage, Louis Rees-Zammit could not quite sneak over in the corner after being released by Nick Tompkins and Ellis Jenkins. Instead, Dan Biggar opened the scoring off the kicking tee.
Unfortunately Wales were struggling with staying in the lead as, either side of a second Biggar penalty, the Springboks were given free three points after an offside from a kick and then a spilled kick-off allowed the away side to win a scrum penalty. Handre Pollard made no mistake with the score at 6-6.
The visitors continued to push on the back of that but a superb Jenkins turnover on his return to international action after three years away with injury killed their momentum stone dead and the men in red promptly headed up the other end of the pitch with South Africa going off their feet and allowing Biggar to put us in the lead once again.
With 30 minutes gone the penalties were starting to rack up against the Springboks, and when Ox Nche was spotted by the TMO cynically blocking Tompkins on a kick chase he was sent to the sin bin, with Biggar adding three more points.
However, Wales were also struggling with ill-discipline and with referee Paul Williams putting the team under a warning it was no surprise when the next infringement saw a yellow card shown to Rhys Carre. Fortunately, a brilliant Jenkins interception this time ended a South African attack but Pollard was able to slot another kick to make it 12-9 at half-time.
Both teams returned to 15 players early in the second half as the first 10 minutes were once again tense affairs. This time though it was the away side in control of the ball but another piece of Jenkins brilliance, this time ripping the ball in contact, allowed Johnny McNicholl to kick up field and Aaron Wainwright to win a penalty on the floor, with Biggar on target once again.
Wales struggled to maintain their advantage once again though, conceding a penalty quickly that allowed Frans Steyn to knock a kick over from inside his own half, and as the final quarter of the game rolled around a crazy scene unfolded at the Principality Stadium.
The home side put together one of our best attacking passages of the game, with Nick Tompkins and Ellis Jenkins carrying well, with South Africa conceding a penalty, and we were able to kick into their 22. A smart attack saw the ball go wide for McNicholl but Liam Williams outside him was impeded by a brainless pitch invader as he prepared to push down the touchline for a go at the corner.
Attention then turned to referee Mr Williams as the Springboks thought they had scored a try after Cobus Reinach’s box kick was tapped down into the hands of Eben Etzebeth who found Mapimpi on his shoulder, but the winger’s score was chalked off when Malcolm Marx was adjudged offside courtesy of not retreating when the kick failed to travel 10 metres.
However, that only seemed to spurn the away side on as they began to turn the screw. The scrum earned them penalties again and once they kicked into the Wales 22 they finally found their maul legs, getting the drive moving at speed and over the try line with Marx in possession.
Elton Jantjies couldn’t convert, but the hosts were slowly beginning to struggle under the high ball and when Kwagga Smith won a turnover to haul the Springboks back onto the attack the Welsh legs were looking tired. Jantjies kicked a penalty and there was no comeback from the men in red who went down 18-23.
A brutal but thrilling encounter in Cardiff which had a bit of everything in difficult conditions, but ultimately the power and experience of the South Africa bench told as Wales were brave but ultimately came up just short.
There were plenty of positives for Wayne Pivac, particularly in defence where the red zone work, maul defence and turnover threat were very high quality, it continues to be the lack of depth that prevents his side competing beyond the hour mark, but there’s plenty of time to build towards the World Cup in two years and that is exactly what we are seeing.