July internationals: Five takeaways from South Africa v Wales as centurion Eben Etzebeth leads the way

James While

Following a 30-14 victory for South Africa over Wales in their July international series decider, here’s our five takeaways from the match in Cape Town.

The top line

South Africa took their time to see off a doughty and injury-riddled Wales in a scrappy and ill-disciplined affair at DHL Stadium.

It was, predictably, a match won by the power of the Springbok forwards, underpinned by a marvellous display in both aspects of the set-piece and a winning battle on the gain line, where centurion Eben Etzebeth and flank Pieter-Steph du Toit played to their incredible strengths to obliterate Wales off the map.

First-half tries by Handre Pollard, Bongi Mbonambi and a second-half effort by skipper Siya Kolisi from close range were enough to see off the spirited effort of Wales.

Frans Malherbe had one of his most devastating displays as a tighthead in the first half. His sheer power split out the Welsh props, causing no end of battles, especially given the dreadful pitch surface at the stadium, something that plagued the Lions series in 2021 and continues to be a danger to all who play on it.

For Wales in the two previous Tests, they won both the gain line and aerial battle, but today they came second in both aspects and never had enough possession or territory to really threaten the Springbok lead.

Eben and the ‘Bomb Squad’

Etzebeth become the youngest Springbok centurion today and etched his name in the highest echelons of South African rugby history. He said, post-match, that if he’d lost in his 100th Test it would have haunted him forever – and in this match he put in one of his very best performances in the green shirt.

In the second half, he almost scored from a charge down and spent most of the match leaving his physical mark all over the pitch, with one hit on Kieran Hardy almost breaking the Welsh half-back in two.

Etzebeth and the ‘Bomb Squad’ yet again were the key components in the Bok win. Things were creaking when Malcolm Marx rumbled on but he proceeded to right all of the inefficiency in contact with some trademark rumbles, theatrical jackals and thundering tackles.

It might not have been a match to pin up in the art gallery, but this was Test rugby South African style and when they get their momentum going, few can live with their brutality and power for extended periods of the game.

Chances blown

It doesn’t help continuity when you lose not one but two players within a few moments prior to kick off. Last week’s hero Gareth Anscombe withdrew with a rib issue just before the players arrived at the stadium, and then to compound the misery, Taulupe Faletau’s back locked up in the warm up, meaning that Josh Navidi came into the back-row just before the anthems. It was a less than ideal start and Wales could ill-afford to lose players of that quality.

But despite the disruptions and despite the power and directness of the Springboks, Wales had every chance to push the scoreline closer and to sneak another surprise victory. However, time and time again their propensity for unforced errors cost them dearly – whether it be daft technical transgressions such as lineout numbers or poor skill execution such as Dewi Lake’s poor service in the same area.

Against South Africa, your set-piece and breakdown execution has to be absolutely flawless. Wales will be pleased as punch over their commitment and some of their outcomes in attack, but the frustrations of unforced errors will be a major talking point for the coaches as the new season approaches.

Garden route

Looking at their work-ons, South Africa’s natural psyche means that when their players carry, they don’t only want to score tries but they want to completely obliterate any unfortunate defender that dares to get in their way.

That slavish adherence to route one play is really hampering the opportunities that their immense set-piece and breakdown platform is giving them, and at the heart of this is an absolute discomfort in passing left to right along their backline.

Time and time again the second and third receivers are blowing their own line speed by either crabbing laterally across before the pass, or alternatively passing firmly at the man rather than in the space in front of them, causing the receiver to slow to take the pass.

It’s a real issue for the Springboks. Their ability to gain possession and to get front foot ball is absolutely unmatched within the international game, but the flip side of that is their midfield backline is simply not working as a cohesive handling unit, with only the interventions of the veteran Willie le Roux offering them real threat and impetus.

Sure, they won convincingly today and are an exceptionally hard side to beat, but sorting out the speed and accuracy of their midfield passing would take them to another level completely, allowing them to maximise the immense momentum gifted to their backs by the brilliance of their peerless forwards.

Wales on tour

Wales will see this tour as a huge positive and a big step forward, despite losing the series 2-1. But for a litany of errors and transgressions in Test one, they may well have become the third northern hemisphere side to win on tour this July, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

We have spoken before of their ability to score explosive tries and there’s no doubt of the quality of their backline, but on this tour, we have seen the emergence of Tommy Reffell as a top notch Test openside, Gareth Thomas and Sam Wainwright as two clear Test quality propping options and also the progress of two massive locks, Will Rowlands and Adam Beard.

But as Wales wand their weary way home, Wayne Pivac will be outwardly talking about costly errors whilst secretly beaming inside with pride at the way his lads stood up to one of the most physical tours of all. He expressed disappointment at a chance lost in Cape Town after the game, but in the cold light of day he’ll see this tour as a positive learning experience and he will be delighted in the squad gains he has made in preparation for the 2022/23 season.

READ MORE: South Africa see off stubborn Wales to earn series triumph