After filling Loftus Versfeld last week, the action moved to Bloemfontein for the second Test between South Africa and Wales. The Springboks were fielding a squad very different to their last-gasp win a week ago—not that it in any way devalued the match, take note Wales Online and Sir Gareth Edwards—but they were behind within seconds to a Dan Biggar penalty, though opposite number Handré Pollard soon answered with an early penalty of his own. The rest of the opening half was a tight affair, with both fly halves missing their next kick at goal, as on multiple occasions the Springboks found themselves turned over in and around the Welsh 22 by Tommy Reffell and as the teams went in at the break it was still just 3-3.
The second half started much better for the Boks with a couple of Pollard penalties, while Biggar—who appeared to be struggling with a shoulder issue and was soon replaced by Gareth Anscombe—missed a kick of his own. Wales’ discipline was again struggling as they were forced to consistently defend, and with 15 minutes gone in the half, South Africa made a break down the right and while they were brought down, Alun Wyn Jones was adjudged (wrongly) by referee Angus Gardner to have cynically played the ball in the ruck and the replacement captain was sent to the bin and Pollard soon added another 3 points from the tee. The Welsh desperately needed something, and Gareth Anscombe’s penalty just after the hour cut the deficit to 6 points as Jones returned from the bin, but his next kick drifted wide as the game entered the final 10 minutes. It was not going to be a comfortable end to the game for the Boks though, as Handré Pollard hobbled of with 6 minutes left, and with Wales earning a penalty at the scrum, they kicked to the corner and went through the phases before spreading wide left to send Josh Adams over for the only try of the game with 2 minutes left. Anscombe added the extras to give them a 12-13 lead and the defence held out for the final minute of the game to secure Wales’ first ever victory over the Springboks in South Africa.
Ahead of the match, here was plenty of talk as to how the South African selection—changing 14 men in the XV and more on the bench—disrespected Wales and devalued the match. And while Wales may have come away with the victory, I hope the people who made those comments now feel suitably stupid after their first choice Wales team created just one attacking chance of note against this supposed B team.
More than anything, this just showed the strength in depth of South African rugby, as many of the stars moved abroad which left space for the younger generation to grow early. And as for devaluing a game, There are only a finite amount of Test matches per year, and even less that are not part of a competition like the Rugby Championship. So to be in one of those non-competition matches 1 year out from a Rugby World Cup, of course you need to be testing the depth of your squad when your first choice team is looking so solid, giving the younger players much-needed Test experience and a chance to break into the World Cup squad, while also giving the current fringe players a chance to prove that they should retain their spot in the squad.
Arguably on the day, it was the South African team selection that proved the Springboks’ downfall, but I would argue that it was the sheer number of players who weren’t used to playing together at this level—or used to playing at this level at all, and this clearly led to a disjointed attack that as a result only showed flashes of quality. But this is a necessary part of rugby.
Wales have not become world-beaters overnight. Likewise South Africa have not stopped being a force in Test rugby with this 1 loss.
Earning his stripes
Is there something in the water in Leicester at the moment? After Jack van Poortvliet joined Freddie Steward in looking like a Test veteran in his first start against Australia, Tommy Reffell was having an absolute stormer of a match here, having also impressed on his debt last week.
In attack, he was carrying well when asked to and securing ball for his side, while in defence (which was most of the match) he was shining, being a constant threat at the breakdown and bringing an end to a number of South Africa’s most promising attacks and deservedly earning the Player of the Match award.
Wales have incredible depth on the flanks, so Reffell needs to take his chance while he can. In recent years under Pivac, we have seen players put in a string of great performances and then completely disappear from the 23 the moment they have a quiet game. By being so impressive in his early appearances against such quality opposition, hopefully he’s earning some credit in the bank.