South Africa 38 Wales 16: Three talking points
South Africa 38 Wales 16: Three talking points as Warren Gatland's men lose first Test
Errors blight Wales
Far from being a massive chance to get an elusive win over a southern hemisphere side, it was the latest in a long line of dismal away days for Wales that will inevitably slip from memory until the next time it happens. The Welsh Rugby Union may regret scheduling four autumn internationals against the four Rugby Championship nations unless there is a dramatic improvement between now and November—very hard to guarantee. While Wales were barely able to get over the gainline, the Springboks smashed their way through it or evaded a blitz defence with deft chips over the top. The defence was woeful, the attack not much better. Even the 14 points conceded while Jamie Roberts had been sin-binned for taking out Willie le Roux in the air 13 minutes was a minor contributor—in all likelihood, it would have happened anyway. Wales had five visits into the Springboks 22 in the first half. The result was one infringement, four errors, no points. The second half wasn’t much better as a further three efforts brought errors. Only Alex Cuthbert’s sublime 80-metre break resulted in anything, but 11 minutes from time it was almost futile consolation. Second-half replacements brought a fresh impetus: debuts for scrum-half Gareth Davies and full-back Matthew Morgan saw variety, tackle busts and something a bit different including a sweeping 60-metre break from Davies which should have resulted in a try had Dan Biggar not been caught and his offload gone forward. Wales need more of that direct, open running and for longer; a genuine Plan B, which has been lacking for so long. Nobody can be happy with that performance. Changes are needed. Questions of fatigue from a long year will surface, but Wales were just outthought, outmuscled and outclassed. That Rugby World Cup group containing England and Australia doesn’t look any more promising.
Ruthless Springboks peak?
Any talk of South Africa being in crisis was quickly snuffed out in Durban. They may be short of a few options at centre and brought back 37-year-old Victor Matfield into the second row, but South Africa were brutal in their first Test outing for seven months. Willie le Roux was menacing from full-back, perhaps even more than his days as a winger, operating as a second receiver and running at the Wales defence. Debutant centre Jan Serfontein was superb in targeting the 10 channel with direct running. Bath flanker Francois Louw showcased why he’s one of the best players at the breakdown and there were numerous other standout performances from forwards and backs alike, but the forwards were immense with their intensity in the tackle and with their carries. They were at least a couple of levels above Wales. What Gatland wouldn’t give for a few South African “project” forwards to become future Welsh stars? The worst thing is that it was far from perfect from the Springboks: they turned the ball over more than Wales and missed more tackles, but they were ruthless on their 13 visits to the Wales 22, scoring points on five occasions, with as many efforts defended by Wales, including a mammoth defensive effort at the death. Despite that minor detail, it is a performance will ring loud in New Zealand and Australia ahead of the Rugby Championship in August. They scored six tries against a World XV a week ago and five more today. If that’s what they’re capable of 16 months before a Rugby World Cup, it promises to be extra special in England next year.
End of an era
Winning his 100th Test cap, tighthead prop Adam Jones lasted little more than 30 minutes—he wasn’t injured, he just wasn’t effective and Warren Gatland threw on Samson Lee, who was better in the scrum and the loose. The last time Jones was hauled off early in such a manner was nine years ago before he became one of the world’s best props, but he still hasn’t adapted to the new scrum procedure after a full season and is not bringing the intensity needed. He’s been a superb asset for Wales over the years but at 33—and barring a massive reinvention—he should have played his last Test match for Wales with Lee and Scarlets team-mate Rhodri Jones offering more than the veteran. On current form, it would be a travesty if Jones starts the second Test never mind being selected for next year’s showpieces. Selecting players on former glories is a non-starter and Gatland has been particularly slow to recognise that some players are no longer what the team needs. There can be no room for sentimentality. The same can be said in other positions, notably scrum-half. Mike Phillips is not the solution and hasn’t been all season, yet Gatland has kept faith. For all his experience Phillips, like Adam Jones, is too slow and not producing the goods. That was painfully highlighted when Gareth Davies—the top tryscorer in the RaboDirect Pro12 this season—made his debut in the second half and lit up Kings Park. Wales aren’t short of good options there either with another Scarlets 9 Rhodri Williams and Ospreys’ Rhys Webb also better options than Phillips, who can’t get into the starting XV at Racing Metro. There will be arguments from some quarters that it is too late to start ringing the changes 16 months out from a Rugby World Cup, but that’s exactly what Gatland should do while he has a dozen matches left to integrate exciting young Welsh players.