Mike Greenaway at Loftus Versfeld
Pretoria — Damian Willemse has for much of his career been accused of being erratic but when it mattered most he coolly slotted a post-hooter penalty to give his team a 32-29 victory that will go down in Springbok history as The Great Escape.
Let’s be honest, for 70 minutes of the game Wales seemed to win their first-ever match on South African soil, but somehow the bloodyminded Boks found a way to win when they honestly deserved to lose, they played that badly.
For the duration of the match, the packed stands around the pitch were in semi-darkness because Loftus was running off generator power thanks to SA Rugby having zero faith in Escom to keep the lights on, while the Boks themselves looked like they were running off a flat battery.undefined
History tells us that the Boks are notoriously slow starters to a season, especially at home when they are expected to comfortably win, but the refrain from the Boks during the week was that it would be different this time because they were at last playing at home in front of their fans — the first time since winning the World Cup in 2019, and they also declared that they wanted to put smiles on South African faces because of the ceaseless social-economic travails in this country.
Yet they started as if in slow motion and it was difficult to comprehend that on the eve of the match, Siya Kolisi had spoken about the need for a high-intensity start.
Instead of hitting the ground running, the Boks started with a resounding splat. Twice up-and-unders were fumbled shortly after the match kicked off, and the Welsh capitalised with a slick backline movement which put speedster Louis Rees-Zammit free for a sprint down the touchline to score in the corner, after just three minutes.undefined
Captain Dan Biggar missed the conversion but made up for it with a drop goal soon after, and Wales had a dream 8-0 start after as many minutes.
A major talking point before the match was the selection of flyhalf Elton Jantjies ahead of Handre Pollard, who had arrived late in camp after playing in the French Top 14 final. He had a nervy start, with his tactical kicking creaky at best, and then after hitting the upright with a long-range penalty effort he nailed a penalty to put the Boks on the board as the first quarter ended.
Criminally, the Boks then conceded a penalty from the kick-off and Biggar restored the eight-point lead.
If that had the Bok coach pulling his hair out, it was the turn for his Wales counterpart seconds later when the Boks were penalised, but Jantjies missed a relative sitter.
The Boks enjoyed most of the possession in territory in the second quarter but could find no way through the fierce Welsh defence and then seven minutes before the break a messy lineout on the half way line saw Rees Zammit come in off his blind side wing and stab the loose ball deep into unmarked ground, then gather and race to the posts.
Desperate times require desperate measures and Jantjies was unceremoniously pulled off at half time and Willie le Roux found himself in the unfamiliar No 10 role.
At 18-3 down, the Boks had to score first in the second half and they did so after they turned down two kickable penalities for the corner kick and then were handsomely rewarded when Bongi Mbonambi was driven over, and Damian Willemse’s conversion made it 18-10.
Five minutes later, the Boks repeated the fruitful exercise but this time it was Malcolm Marx rampaging over.
Willemse missed a relatively easy conversion attempt and that hurt all the more when the Boks promptly gave away a penalty, and Biggar was never going to miss, and when he added another three points as the game hit the three-quarter mark, the Boks were once more in desperate trouble.undefined
They responded with their best passage of play — after a series of forward darts at the line, the ball went wide and Damian de Allende put through a deft grubber for Cheslin Kolbe to score and this time Willemse converted to make it 22-24.
With six minutes to go, Wales’ try-scoring hero, Rees-Zammit, was sin-binned for a professional foul near his line and from the penalty the Boks went to the corner and when their drive was pulled down, the referee awarded the match-clinching penalty try.
But yet again the Boks gave away a penalty from the restart and Wales had the opportunity to win the game when they kicked to the corner. Hooker Dewi Lake drove over, only for Biggar to miss the conversion, and that proved the platform for the Boks to win a penalty and for Willemse to kick them to glory.
South Africa 32 — Tries: Bongi Mbonambi, Malcolm Marx, Cheslin Kolbe Penalty Try. Penalties: Elton Jantjies, Damian Willemse. Conversions: Damian Willemse (2).
Wales 29 — Tries: Louis Rees-Zammit (2), Dewi Lake. Drop Goal: Dan Biggar. Penalties: Biggar (3). Conversions: Biggar.