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Rugby | Springboks

Siya Kolisi and Rob Evans © Getty Images

Dominant pack can’t save Boks



The huge dominance of an impressive forward juggernaut almost saw the Springboks come back from the dead but Wales held on to end the autumn international phase of the northern hemisphere season with a hard fought 24-22 win in Cardiff on Saturday.

It was the third win in a row for Wales in Cardiff against a nation that they had only beaten once in more than 100 years before 2014 and never before 1998 and was achieved by a Welsh team that was without as many as 12 front-line players and which was regarded by many as a Wales B or even C team.

You wouldn’t have thought that in the first eight minutes though, for by the time the match was that old the hosts had taken a 14-0 lead. Beforehand predictions of a Bok win were based on anticipation of forward dominance against a severely depleted opposition eight and a perception that the Welsh might blindly run at the Boks like they did against New Zealand and thus play into the South African team’s hands.

The first aspect did materialise, but the second didn’t. The Welsh produced a perfectly executed kicking game in the early stages and the flummoxed Boks were unable to deal with it either in the air or defensively. First Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar launched a cross kick that was plucked out of the air and led to a well taken try off an inside pass for centre Scott Williams.

Then a few minutes later it was Biggar again, this time with a chip kick, that sent in the other centre, Hadleigh Parkes. Both tries were created too easily and the Boks were in massive trouble and there might have been images running through South African minds of a similar thing happening to the Boks in this game as happened to Australia against Scotland last week. In other words, a 50 pointer.

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FORWARD DOMINANCE

However, one area where the Boks are infinitely better than the Wallabies, and indeed most teams in world rugby, is at forward. And even when the Boks later fell behind 21-3 when a pedestrian attempted clearance from fullback Andries Coetzee was charged down and it resulted in Parkes’ second try, it was obvious that the Boks had the forward dominance to come close.

Forward dominance, as was illustrated in the recent Currie Cup final between Western Province and the Sharks, remains the bottom line in rugby. The problem is that the Boks didn’t have the tactical astuteness and finesse in other areas that WP had to make it count, and it was why they eventually fell short even though they put in a great hearted effort and the pack was murdering the Welsh unit until some questionable substitutions later in the game.

The Boks were probably a little unlucky not to be awarded a driving maul try to hooker Malcolm Marx just short of the 20 minute mark and had that score been awarded instead of being disallowed by the TMO, we might have seen a different result. Instead the Boks had to wait until beyond the half hour mark before they scored their first points through a Handre Pollard penalty.

By that stage the Boks had started to turn around the flow of the first 13 minutes, which saw the Welsh enjoying 78 percent possession and a similar territorial advantage. Any other balanced team, in other words one that was made up of more than just a few good parts and then a number of discordant ones, would surely have capitalised on the stream of possession that came the South African way in the second half of the first half.

The Welsh had only one chance really in that opening half after the 13th minute, and that was the try that they scored off the charge-down to make it 21-3 after 33 minutes. Three minutes later the Boks started their fightback with an excellent counter-attack try that featured a good break out from deep in his own half by Dillyn Leyds and a kick into the ingoal area from Jesse Kriel that produced a fortuitous bounce that Warrick Gelant dived on to celebrate his first start in the green and gold with a try.

Pollard’s conversion made it 21-10 at halftime and given how the Bok forwards were able to march the Welsh back almost at will in the mauls and in the scrums, it looked like they were still in the game. And so it proved. Direct forward based play in the opening minutes of the second half led to a try for Pollard in the 46th minute that made it a six point game even though Pollard was unable to convert his own score.

They took the lead for the first time nine minutes after that when a Marx thrust up the left and good soft hands from Gelant put Jesse Kriel in at the left corner. Pollard’s angled conversion was what gave the Boks the one point edge (22-21).

Up to that point the Bok forward dominance was illustrated by the penalty count. By the 59th minute, the Welsh had been penalised nine times. The Boks were yet to be penalised. That changed though as the game reached the hour mark, and the Boks appeared to lose some of their energy and momentum after that.

The bench was emptied in the last quarter but it didn’t make a positive difference for the Boks, and it has to be said that neither had they been helped by skipper Eben Etzebeth having to leave the field towards the end of the first half. They played the second half without their captain and their leading driving forward, and it did make some difference.

ERRORS

That though does not excuse the errors the Boks made, and like in the first half, when there were too many dropped balls under the Welsh aerial attack, a penalty did not find touch and there was a horrible miscommunication at an attacking lineout, the visitors let themselves down in the last quarter.

They always looked the more likely team to score a try during that period, but it was the Welsh who capitalised on a rare sortie into South African territory by kicking a penalty from in front of the posts in the 68th minute. The deficit was only two points, but the Boks lacked the cohesion of the middle stages of the match, and the Welsh showed bravery on defence and then managed to play the last minutes far away from their danger zone. In short, the Boks appeared to struggle with the pressure that was brought to bear once they had cancelled out the early deficit and it became a close game.

Gelant was playing out of position on the wing and was predictably a bit exposed in aspects of defensive play early on but otherwise will be pleased with his first start, and ditto Dan du Preez, who featured strongly in a pack that was mostly going forward. Pieter-Steph du Toit put in some big hits and Siya Kolisi carried well, while the front row was dominant in the scrums until split up by substitutions later in the game.

But it was behind the scrums, and in aspects of tactical play, that the Boks were sorely exposed once more, and this time by a team that for long periods had hardly any ball to play with. That the Boks have such a brutal pack and yet could only win seven in 13 games this season is probably something that will be taken into consideration by those who will decide on the way forward for this particular Bok team and coaching staff.

Scores

Wales 24 – Tries: Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes 2; Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny 3; Penalty: Leigh Halfpenny. South Africa 22 – Tries: Warrick Gelant, Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel; Conversions: Handre Pollard 2; Penalty: Handre Pollard.

Pollard converted to make it 21-10 at halftime and the 'Boks opened the second period seemingly focused on less chaotic rugby and with a gameplan based around their powerful forwards led magnificently by go-to hit-up man Steven Kitshoff.

The pressure told, Pollard crashing over after several phases of drives close to the Welsh line.

With Wales tighthead Scott Andrews, in his first test since 2013, targeted in the scrum, the 'Boks played it tight, eventually freeing Kriel, who powered through Halfpenny for a try Pollard converted from the touchline to hand the Springboks a 22-21 lead.

But Halfpenny booted a penalty for the home side to regain the lead with 12 minutes to play. A raft of replacements broke the tempo of the game and Wales desperately held out for a much-needed victory which had looked a lot more academic at halftime.



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