You guess it has been a long 24 hours for the South Africans in Cardiff, long enough for them to enjoy a selection of the city’s delights, the freezing-cold weather, the torrential rain, and not just one, but two, night-time fire alarm calls in their hotel, one at 3am, which gave them a good 20-minute stretch standing around on the street mingling with Cardiff’s Friday nightlife, and then, because it was so much fun, another at 7.20am. And then, to top it all off, they had a brutal 80 minute set-to with a Welsh team who were utterly unrecognisable from the lot who shipped 54 points against the All Blacks last week.
It was a hell of a game. There were two yellow cards, one try that wasn’t and a cameo appearance by a pitch invader and a security guard, who threw themselves in the way of Liam Williams as he was closing in on the Springbok tryline. Williams skipped around them but the distraction cost him precious split seconds. Wayne Pivac was phlegmatic about it. “You don’t want to see that in the game, very disappointing, but there’s nothing the match officials can do about it,” Pivac said. “I don’t know if we would have scored. We just saw a two v one, and thought: ‘Well, here we go.’”
As for the miscreant, well, the stadium manager explained: “He was intercepted and immediately escorted from the stadium and handed over to South Wales police.” No doubt he was in for a long night of it too. At least the Springboks came away with a win to go with all their bruises.
It was in the balance until the 12th round. The Springboks were sure they had settled it when Makazole Mapimpi dived over the line to finish what looked to be a length-of-the-field try, sparked by a startling break by Cobus Reinach in the 70th minute. But even while Elton Jantjies was lining up the conversion, the television replay showed that several of their players had been offside in the buildup. Minutes later they really did finish it when Malcolm Marx bulled over from a lineout drive. Jantjies missed the conversion but landed a penalty with the last kick to finish it.
It was South Africa’s first win here since 2013. Wales had won five of the last seven matches between the teams. Of course, that was Warren Gatland’s team, Pivac’s side is a different beast, and they were missing their captain, Alun Wyn Jones, and a handful of other senior players besides. It hardly showed. Turns out there’s plenty of the old blood and guts in Pivac’s young team, too. Ellis Jenkins, back in the side after three years out injured, was especially good. He was key in the opening minutes, when Wales were being tossed in the storm. Whatever else it achieved, those two early morning wake-up calls did not seem to have done much for the South Africans’ mood.
But the Welsh gathered themselves after Jenkins won a crucial turnover. It helped that their lineout was back working again too. One led to an opportunity, after Dan Biggar threw a long pass out to Jenkins in space on the right wing, he shovelled it on to Louis Rees-Zammit, who was hauled down by Siya Kolisi in the split second before he crossed the line. Rees-Zammit had a second chance moments later, when Biggar whistled a high cross-field kick over to the right corner, but the ball burst through his fingertips as he leapt for it. It was Wales’ best chance of the half.
If the lineout was fine, the scrum was still malfunctioning, and a ready source of penalties for the visitors. Fortunately for Wales, South Africa were giving away plenty too, seven penalties in the first 30 minutes alone. The referee reckoned that was one too many and sent Ox Nché to the sin-bin for obstruction. Wales’ one-man advantage did not last, with Rhys Carré shown a yellow card when he came into a ruck from the side. Worse, South Africa actually started playing some of their best stuff when they were down to 14 men. Handré Pollard almost put Mapimpi through with a grubber.
Always, though, there was the looming threat of the South Africa replacements. The difference between the two teams seemed starkest when you looked at the men on the benches. The Welsh had two debutants among their spare forwards and two more with only a handful of caps. The South Africans, on the other hand, were a gnarly old lot, Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Franco Mostert, men who had been instrumental in the World Cup win in 2019.
It was a sign of how well Wales were playing that South Africa bolted early, and brought on Marx, Kitshoff and Koch five minutes into the second half. In the minutes afterwards, they came hard at the Welsh line, 14 phases, all in the Welsh 22, but the hosts held, won a turnover and, better yet, a penalty off the back of the clearance. That lead did not last either. François Steyn kicked a penalty from five metres inside his own half, and then Pollard added another. That made the scores level at 15-15 with 20 minutes to play. And while Biggar kicked one more penalty, as Jenkins said afterwards: “South Africa were just too good at turning the screws on us in those last few moments.”