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Four South Africa takeaways from Wales' tour of SA

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa's lock Eben Etzebeth gestures during an international rugby union match between South Africa and Wales at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on July 2, 2022. (Photo by Christiaan KOTZE / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTIAAN KOTZE/AFP via Getty Images)

Context is the lifeblood of elite sport. There has to be a purpose for tens of thousands of people cram into a stadium to watch millionaires they’ve never met kick and chase and throw a ball around. Oh sure, it’s a lot of fun, and the escapism is certainly alluring, but there’s a reason why we distinguish ‘friendlies’ to those contests that matter.


South Africa beat Wales in Cape Town to claim the three-Test series and ensure that at least one of the southern hemisphere’s big three triumphed against their northern rivals. That in itself provides some context to the affair. There’s enough scaffolding to drape a narrative over. A 30-14 win. A series victory. National pride. The Bokke doing it for the country.

But we know that these mid-year Tests are viewed within a broader piece. Of course Ireland’s historic achievement in New Zealand is worthy of great admiration in its own right, and the slug-fest between Australia and England was captivating without any tangential sub-plots. But with just over a year until the next World Cup, it’s understandable that we view these matches through the prism of the global showpiece in France.

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Sam Cane lost for answers as Ian Foster’s job questioned by media after series loss to Ireland | All Blacks press conference
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Sam Cane lost for answers as Ian Foster’s job questioned by media after series loss to Ireland | All Blacks press conference

So, what lessons have we learned? What have we gleaned from South Africa’s stuttering, but seemingly inevitable, success?

South Africa need a Plan B on attack
There was a moment during the first half of the third Test where South Africa were pounding away at the Welsh line. Jaden Henrikse would fetch the ball from the base of the ruck, fizz it short to a behemoth in green and move five metres to the next ruck to do it all over again. And again. And again. And again.

Every carry advanced the ball upfield by a few centimetres. It was progress. But it was slow. And though Handre Pollard would eventually score with a busting carry of his own, it all felt a little plodding.

Pragmatists would argue that the ends justifies the means. A try is worth five points whether it’s scored off the back of a rolling maul or through an 80 metre counterattack involving half the squad.


It was, however, frustrating watching a side with creative and skilful backs, let alone a handful of forwards capable of expanding beyond a one dimensional approach, turn themselves into crude blunt objects. That the try was scored by the team’s flyhalf acting as a battering ram was indicative of a one dimensional philosophy.

Springboks South Africa
Elrigh Louw of the Springboks during the first test match of the 2022 Castle Lager Incoming Series between South Africa and Wales at Loftus Versfeld on July 02, 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

A new approach is needed. Not just for thrills but to shift the focus of attack when Plan A encounters stubborn resistance. They have the personnel to move the ball at pace, to bring their dynamic runners into the game from unexpected angles, to play against the grain and probe in the wide channels.

Cheslin Kolbe’s injury is a concern. All too often the Springboks have banked on a piece of individual brilliance from the hot-stepper. Fitness is a fickle concept and he may not be around for every crunch game. Should that be the case, South Africa will wish they’d cultivated an alternative mode of attack.


Flyhalf remains a major concern
It was painful watching Elton Jantjies have a nightmare in the opening Test of the series. A polarising figure on the field, the former Lions flyhalf is among the most enterprising playmakers in the world when he’s on form.

Sadly, those games are few and far between and his stinker in Pretoria could well be his last for the Springboks. At least it would be if South Africa had greater depth in this crucial position.

Handre Pollard’ grip on the No 10 jersey has tightened. Not because he shot the lights out in the two games he started, but because no one else is a ready-made deputy.

Manie Libbok, Chris smith and Curwin Bosch impressed over the United Rugby Championship, but they evidently haven’t yet earned the faith of Jacques Nienaber and his coaching staff. Damien Willemse stepped into the void once Jantjies was hooked at half time in the opening game and performed admirably.

Nienaber, though, has likened the versatile Willemse to the Francois Steyn, revealing his intentions for the 24-year-old utility back. Willemse is certainly capable of dictating a game at 10, but starting him at 15 or off the bench affords the Springboks coach greater flexibility, as well as the option of seelcting six forwards among his Bomb Squad replacements.


This means that, more than any other player in the squad, the fitness and form of Pollard is of the utmost importance. There’s a strong case to be made that he is the most valuable player to his team’s cause in world rugby.

Depth isn’t as strong as we’d like to believe (which is good)
Despite fielding six uncapped players and making a raft of changes to the squad that pipped the first Test, many South African pundits and punters expected the Springboks to snatch the second. Few predicted it would be a romp, but given the depth of South African rugby, and the positivity emanating an all South African affair in the URC final, there was founded belief that South Africa’s second-stringers would turn over the Welsh.

It wasn’t to be. Not just because of Gareth Anscombe’s late heroics but because the Springboks failed to capitalise on their territorial dominance and were inept at constructing a try threatening move.

Their defeat, their first ever on home soil to Wales, provoked the expected histrionics and lamentations from fans who believe in the preordained supremacy of their beloved Springboks.

But here’s the thing. That reverse was a positive for South African rugby. Not only did the bloody nose inject some much needed humility into the organisation, it also underlined the theory that that there is a gargantuan step up from franchise rugby to the elite Test level. That learning experience can only develop those players on the fringe. The entire ecosystem is better for it.

Springboks know how to win when it counts
This final lesson is one we all know by now. When the Springboks need to win a game, when the context of the match is elevated, they find a way. They won’t win over any neutrals by doing it their way. In fact, they might turn a few sitting on the fence against them. But when a series is on the line, when there is jeopardy in the next line-out or scrum, the Springboks find a way.

Winning is a habit. Do it enough and you get hooked to it. It becomes addictive. You need it. You’d do anything to get your fix. The Springboks are triumph junkies. They can’t get enough.


They’ll play a brand critics might label as boring, they’ll sit in press conferences and explain why the world is against them, they’ll espouse a calling greater than themselves that extends beyond the boundary and reaches into slums around the country. They may even edit an hour long video pinpointing a referee’s mistakes.

All of this is done to win rugby matches. To lift titles. To claim series. They’ve done that yet again. And as they move towards the Rugby Championship and start building towards their World Cup title defence, they’ll take heart in the knowledge that they’ve succeeded again when it mattered. Forget context. That’s what really counts.


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RUGBYPASS+ Back from the abyss, Bath's revival is gathering steam Back from the abyss, Bath's revival is gathering steam