When you come back from being out of it to win 31-30 in the final minutes, you expect the winning team to be elated, but the Springboks looked anything but that as the final whistle sounded on this pulsating second test against Wales here at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit.
Perhaps they were just exhausted and relieved to escape with a win that for so long looked highly unlikely, or maybe they too felt that the penalty try that Steve Walsh awarded to give them victory was an unsatisfactory way for the game to end. As with the two tries the Boks scored just before halftime against first 14 and then 13 men, it just left a bit of a hollow feeling and left way too much room for debate over whether the Boks, who frankly were horrible for most of this game, were deserving of their win.
But as the old saying goes, it’s in the book, the match will be reflected as a South African victory in the newspapers tomorrow, and the Boks remain unbeaten against Wales on South African soil. Phew, but it was close, and maybe the way the Boks carried themselves at the end of the game was just a reflection that they know the truth – this was a massive wake-up call.
Until those last eight minutes, when the Boks scored two converted tries (a penalty try is still a converted try), the home team never really looked like making a dent when the two teams both had 15 men.
Technically speaking, Walsh was correct to award the penalty try if indeed the tackle on flying Springbok wing Cornal Hendricks on the corner flag that knocked him out of play was really illegal. The law book does state that if the last tackler is ruled to have infringed, the referee has to treat that tackler as if he wasn’t there. In other words, Hendricks would have been home and dry and won the game.
But from the vantage point of the press box at Mbombela Stadium it was hard to see it as so cut and dried, so it was easy to feel sorry for the Welsh, who will rightly feel aggrieved at the huge influence the referee had on this game. And you could also feel sorry for Walsh, for while he may be seen as a villain in the Welsh valleys tonight, he probably felt he had no alternative but to award the try. He certainly showed enough patience and spent enough time explaining his decision to the Wales captain, Alun Wyn-Jones.
The Boks may have profited from some outrageous fortune along the way, but they did show great character to come back to win when at one stage of the first half they were 17-0 down and they were 30-17 down with eight minutes to go.
Willie le Roux’s little show that saw him dart between two Welsh defenders to dot down at that point was what gave the Boks a sniff. That they were in such an attacking position at all was down to a great break-out earlier from wing Hendricks, who had his best game yet in the Bok jersey and is growing in both confidence and stature with every game he plays.
Once they had a chance, the Boks were rejuvenated and, for the second time in the match, summoned energy that earlier it didn’t appear they had. The attack that eventually saw Wales fullback Liam Williams knocking Hendricks out at the corner flag was a good one. There were two minutes and 15 seconds left on the clock at that point.
There wasn’t a huge outburst of elation from anyone when Walsh walked across to signal the penalty try, though the Boks would also have known the game was not yet over. And they were right, for the Welsh had two more chances to win, both of them drop-goal attempts from flyhalf Dan Biggar that fell well short.
It was a great escape for the Boks, but few would have disagreed with No 8 Duane Vermeulen’s comment in the post-match interview that the team weren’t happy with the performance. For in truth, this was a complete turn-around from Durban last week, with Wales dominating long periods of the game.
Before the game the expectation from the South Africans had been that the Welsh would adopt spoiling tactics, but they didn’t need to. They were on top in the early scrums and unlike the previous week, they were strong in the collisions too. During the course of the game there were also a couple of moments when the Bok lineout efficiency deserted them at crucial stages.
The Welsh spent most of the early part of the game camped in the Bok territory, and Matfield’s men were clearly struggling to get going. It wasn’t a great surprise when Biggar kicked a penalty to draw first blood for his team, but the real consternation among Bok fans would have started when Jamie Roberts scored the in the 20th minute.
The try was created by Alex Cuthbert switching off flyhalf Biggar after a strong Welsh scrum, but the Welsh wouldn’t have been in that position had it not been for Le Roux dropping a high ball. Le Roux did some great things later on, which is partly what makes this game such a strange one to report on – so many of the Boks who came good later in the game were pretty awful early on.
The next try, rounded off this time by Cuthbert, was started by a mix-up between Le Roux and Steyn, with the latter letting the ball roll between his legs, and the Welsh always had an advantage in numbers as they made the scoring of the try look so easily. Suddenly, with the match just 22 minutes old, it was 17-0 to Wales and the Boks had a fight on their hands.
It was at the 31 minute mark that someone in the press box remarked that if the Welsh were the next to score, they would win the match, and that if the Boks didn’t deny them while themselves getting at least six points on the board, it would be an uphill struggle.
It was almost as if the Boks heard those words, for suddenly they were galvanized. A lineout penalty was won just inside the Welsh half, and with Morne Steyn off the field, it was replacement flyhalf Ruan Pienaar who kicked the ball into the corner. The Boks failed to get over the line at first attempt, but suddenly their driving play was come together, and the Welsh started with the repeat infringing.
Luke Charteris was the first to be yellow carded for a cynical foul near his line, and it was 15 against 14. That still wasn’t enough at that point to inspire complete efficiency from the Boks, as an attacking lineout was overthrown, the ball sailing well over Duane Vermeulen’s head.
The Welsh though couldn’t get themselves away from their line, and when a long driving maul was halted just short of the line by another Welsh infringement, Walsh awarded the penalty try and at the same time reached into his pocket to send Welsh pivot Dan Biggar for a 10 minute breather.
The Boks had been given a leg up, and they weren’t going to waste it, with the only thing wrong with the next try, which was quite brilliant, being the knowledge that it was scored against a team that was reduced to 13 men. When are rugby’s rulers going to come up with an alternative system, such as the booking you have in soccer, that doesn’t so frequently result in this type of match spoiling mismatch?
The try was set up by JP Pietersen’s brilliant break from deep inside his own half, then there was an angled run across the field from Le Roux, and Hendricks rounded off in the right corner. At the break the Welsh were only ahead 17-14 and it looked at that stage as if the momentum had swung inexorably towards the Boks.
It didn’t turn out that way though, with Welsh hooker Ken Owens scoring five minutes after halftime, and the Boks also weren’t helped by a dubious decision by Walsh to yellow card Flip van der Merwe when Wyn-Jones had been upended in fielding a kick. In the 10 minutes Van der Merwe was off the Bok forwards understandably struggled in all departments and it prevented them from starting their catch-up bid earlier than the last 10 minutes.
At the end of it all, the Boks will be wondering how they won, the Welsh will be wondering if fortune will ever smile on them in South Africa.
The Springboks needed a penalty try in the dying minutes of the game to edge out Wales 31-30 in Mbombela on Saturday.
South Africa - Tries: Penalty try (2), Cornal Hendricks, Willie le Roux. Conversions: Morne Steyn (4). Penalties: Steyn.
Wales - Tries: Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert, Ken Owens. Conversions: Dan Biggar (3). Penalties: Biggar (3).