Series decider: Wales settled, Springboks shaken up again
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Wales coach Wayne Pivac was right when he said his team was “written off” before a pass was thrown or a tackle made in the three-test series in South Africa.
That lasted only about 35 minutes into the first test, when Wales surged into an 18-3 lead and the Springboks realized it wasn’t going to be the walkover most — if not all — pundits in South Africa predicted.
But Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber’s response to a narrow, fortunate win by his team in that first test was to take a huge gamble: He made 14 changes to his starting 15, threw six uncapped players into the second test, and Wales leveled the series in Bloemfontein with its first win over the Boks on South African soil.
That leaves a decider in Cape Town on Saturday and Wales, judging by its resilient performances over the first two games, in with a chance of a big upset over the world champions.
“We had an honest discussion with the players telling them what we require from them this weekend,” said Nienaber, who has faced some stinging criticism for his second-test selection experiment.
“You’re not a national coach to learn lessons,” South Africa’s 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White wrote in a column. “You learn that at age-grade or club level – I mean that sincerely – there’s a reason people go through a system to become a national coach.”
White noted that Nienaber faces “massive amounts of pressure” at Cape Town Stadium.
Nienaber’s selection policy has implications for the series finale because he’s now been pushed into making another swathe of changes to his team — 11 this time in the starting 15 — to bring back his front-liners in an effort to save the series.
That’s 25 changes just to the Springboks starters over the last two tests.
Wales has made two and appears far more comfortable ahead of the final reckoning in Cape Town. No one saw that at the start of the tour, save maybe Pivac.
“Most people had written us off before we left Wales and to be in this position with an opportunity to win this series, it’s a great position for us to be in,” Pivac said. “It’s fantastic that there’s something to play for in this test match.”
Everything to play for.
While Wales has already made history with its 13-12 win in Bloemfontein, a series win in South Africa, and over the reigning world champs, would be momentous stuff. A dire Six Nations for the Welsh, who lost to Italy, would be forgotten.
Pivac said his team was “a bit banged” up after the first two tests, but nothing serious. Only wing Alex Cuthbert is out of the third test. Josh Adams replaces him but that switch will be smooth after Adams started the first test and came on as a replacement in the second test and scored the match-winning try.
Nienaber is hoping the stack of World Cup winners he has called back have had enough preparation to save the day given that the first test of the series was their first this year, and they all then sat out the second test.
The series decider might set the tone for South Africa for the rest of the season, its last full season before a Rugby World Cup defense in France next year. Wales already knocked the Boks off the top of the rankings with last weekend’s surprise.
“The fact that they (Wales) will be playing for their first series victory ever in South Africa will make them even more desperate to push us to the limit this weekend, so we know it will be an epic battle,” Nienaber said. “That said, we are also playing in what is essentially a final for us and we know that we need to pitch up on the day.”
South Africa: Damian Willemse, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handré Pollard, Jaden Hendrikse; Jasper Wiese, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Trevor Nyakane. Reserves: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Elrigh Louw, Faf de Klerk, Willie le Roux.
Wales: Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Nick Tompkins, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar (captain), Kieran Hardy; Taulupe Faletau, Tommy Reffell, Dan Lydiate, Adam Beard, Will Rowlands, Dillon Lewis, Ryan Elias, Gareth Thomas. Reserves: Dewi Lake, Wyn Jones, Sam Wainwright, Alun Wyn Jones, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Owen Watkin.
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