July internationals: Five takeaways from South Africa v Wales as the Springboks’ experiment backfires in Bloemfontein

James While

Following a 13-12 victory for Wales over South Africa in their July international, here’s our five takeaways from the match in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

The top line

This game will only ever be remembered as Wales’ first ever victory against South Africa in South Africa as they triumphed in the last moments of the match to win 13-12 courtesy of a Josh Adams try, brilliantly converted by replacement fly-half Gareth Anscombe from the touchline.

It was a monumental and deserved win after the shenanigans of the last 10 minutes of the first Test, one based upon brilliant defence, powerful breakdown work and incredible fitness.

South Africa had 14 changes from their side of last week, that much is true, but you can only play the Test team the opposition selects and there can be no excuses from the home side for their complete lack of shape, attacking ability and creativity.

With the series at 1-1 and a Test to play, Wales, a team beaten by Italy not long ago, are in an incredible position to do the unthinkable – win a series against the world champions in their own back yard.

The back-row

Wales’ back-row was the engine room of their win.

If you pick Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate, you know exactly what you’ll get. Faletau is the master of all forward skills, a complete forward with ball handling skills, defensive nous and a peerless lineout exponent. Lydiate is somewhat easier to characterise – he simply tackles everything that moves and rarely misses.

Bolt on to these two the emerging brilliance of openside Tommy Reffell and you have a trio that seem perfectly balanced in skill set, immensely powerful in defence and an absolute nuisance to play against.

Wales’ defensive effort was based upon the big guys, led by the brilliant Lydiate, to hit early and low from a fast rush – with Reffell looking to intervene at every possible moment, sometimes to jackal, more often just to slow down by being an absolute pain in the backside. Low to the ground, he’s exceedingly difficult to clear out properly and his work in contact was the absolute foundation of the Welsh win.

Taking the moment

Judging by possession, territory and red zone time, South Africa should have had this game home and hosed before 60 minutes. To watch them clatter into the grateful Welsh arms when space existed on the wide extremes of the pitch showed everything about their complete lack of rugby intellect and their rather puzzling need to impose their obsession with machismo with ball in hand.

From what we saw today, Bloemfontein’s grounds staff could have left the lights on until the cricket season before the Boks would have strung together a backline of note or ambition and, whilst this is an experimental team, they simply must find other ways of scoring tries over and above their rolling maul.

However, Wales know they have men in their back division that can get over the whitewash. Sure, Louis Rees-Zammit hardly touched the ball all day but there was a feeling, with the scores so close, that one moment of brilliance from Wales might just be left in their locker.

Adams is a man that didn’t enjoy his last tour with the British and Irish Lions to South Africa but this time he made the most of the single chance he got all game – a catch, a shimmy and on came the afterburners as he crashed over in the left corner to break Springbok hearts.

The experiment

Jacques Nienaber admitted he was using this series to look at other options. He’s in a hard place, knowing that his 2019 side is ageing and stagnating and one can understand his eagerness to try and find the attacking sparks that are so clearly missing.

Handre Pollard looked by far the best of the three Bok fly-halves we’ve seen this season, but without players running lines off him or the nine, the slowness of ball he received gave him few options to attack with glee.

Andre Esterhuizen looked a shadow of himself for Harlequins and outside him, Jesse Kriel simply didn’t have the experience or nous to do that wonderful sweeping up of mess that Lukhanyo Am does with such aplomb.

The Boks will be worried too with the way the Welsh back-row dominated them, especially given the return of the great Pieter-Steph du Toit to the blindside flank. The Bok back-row was very much the fan’s selection, with Evan Roos capped, but they came a distinct second to the excellence of Reffell and his cohorts.

As an experiment, it was at best, inconclusive, at worst, a failure. Expect more from South Africa next week.

The decider

As both teams gear up for the decider next week, you can be sure that South Africa will revert to both Plan A (as if they ever departed from it!) and also, their A Team. Expect to see a real Bok side selected, with little place for sentiment or politics, as they play a game they simply must win.

Wales will be pleased; they’re already well in credit for this tour and they also know they’ve hardly had a refereeing decision go their way (Angus Gardner’s yellow card of Alun Wyn Jones was so wrong that Gardner was lucky he wasn’t sued for defamation of the great man’s character post-match).

They know their lineout is a disaster – five crooked feeds and three turnovers today alone – and they know their scrum is under pressure but that they can do a job.

But most of all, they know two absolutely key things about themselves – one, that they can match the Boks in contact, but importantly, in the course of an 80 minute game, they’re likely to score more tries than the world champions.

Next week promises to be a classic and we cannot wait.

READ MORE: Wales strike late to seal historic win over South Africa