Wales recorded an uncomfortable and unconvincing win over South Africa in a drab encounter in Washington on Saturday.
The game, played on neutral ground in the USA as part of a perceived bid to expand the sport in the country, saw both teams field youthful, experimental squads. Cardiff Blues ace Ellis Jenkins captained Wales on the occasion of his eighth cap, with regional team-mate Tomos Williams earning his first international honours at scrum-half. South Africa unveiled seven debutants, with Ox Niche and Makazole Mapimpi familiar faces for Pro 14 fans after their impressive form for The Cheetahs this season (the latter having moved to The Sharks ahead of their 2018 Super Rugby campaign).
The inexperience showed right across the park from kick-off. The opening quarter was nothing short of abysmal, a shambolic test-match that played well and truly into the hands of the many pundits and critics who argued this game should never have gone ahead, falling as it did outside of the June international test match window. The actual TV coverage of the match didn’t help proceedings – dodgy camera angles and bizarre edits, it really felt as though the camera crew involved had never actually seen a rugby match before, let alone filmed one. The Wales summer tour fixtures have been seen as major coup for Channel 4, who will be broadcasting Champions Cup fixtures from September, but this was certainly a stuttering start. Let’s hope they iron out a few of the issues before next week!
Back to the rugby itself. Handling errors aside, the game did threaten to burst into life after the introduction of Hadleigh Parkes around the half-hour mark. The Scarlets centre was a real physical presence, and burst through a midfield tackle to help send Hallam Amos across the whitewash via some slick handling from Ross Moriarty and Ellis Jenkins. Tomos Williams powered over from close range shortly afterwards, showing his strength to stretch Wales’ lead to 14-3. Suddenly there was a strange sense that Wales could be on course for a comfortable victory.
However, Travis Ismaiel hit back for the Springboks following the restart, pouncing on a loose pass from full-back Amos, and the game was back in the balance.
Wales were struggling to put phases – or even passes – together, with both sides struggling in greasy conditions. The Boks soon struck again, after Owen Watkins had received a yellow card for deliberately knocking the ball out of play. Mapimpi struck with a five-pointer – a superb finisher, he has been fantastic to watch in the Pro 14 and in Super Rugby this year, and I believe he has a superb international career ahead of him.
An error strewn game concluded in bizarre fashion when, totally against the rung of play, the excellent Tomos Williams charged down a clearance kick for Ryan Elias to go over for the decisive score.
I feel Wales will have taken more from this game than the Springboks, with Warren Gatland’s experimental side allowing some fringe players and new combinations on the test stage. And, of course, a third win for Wales in their last four meetings with South Africa. It’s clear the Boks have some incredible talent coming through also, and many of their fresh faces will be hoping to add to their international appearances in a seismic three-test series against England, which begins next weekend.
Wales move on to South America for two fixtures against Argentina. They will need to show massive improvements next week to stand any hope of taking on a confident Pumas team in their own back yard, but they certainly look to be building strength in a squad that could, and should, be in a very good place come the World Cup in 14 months time.