Six years to the day that Wales last defeated one of the southern hemisphere big three, the monkey is finally off their back.
For a while the script played out all too predictably, Wales unable to convert their periods of possession and pressure, the scores level at half-time and the errors creeping in as the game entered Wales’ customary danger zone, namely the final 10 minutes.
It had all the makings of a repeat of South Africa in the summer, and the New Zealand and Australia games of this autumn, when the Springboks were gifted a five-metre scrum after Scott Williams knocked an innocuous kick over his own try line in the dying minutes. But for once the outcome was different, Wales able to clear the ball and hold on to their slim winning margin.
It was not a win that will go down in Millennium Stadium folklore for its line breaks and invention, not that the crowd remotely cared.
Fly-half Dan Biggar had spoken in the build-up of taking a scrappy win, and so it proved. It was a timely one too, being Wales’ last chance to beat southern hemisphere opposition before next year’s World Cup.
“We’ve wounded one of the big beasts,” said Wales coach Warren Gatland, “and they’ll come back fighting even harder next time.”
The dying minutes, as has become the Welsh custom, were agonising, Gatland admitting, “I couldn’t watch for the last 10 minutes. They don’t make it easy on the coaches.”
However, he drew short of saying the win was a relief, arguing that “it wasn’t a case of if but when it was going to happen”.
Biggar was the stand-out performer from the very start, every facet of his game working with aplomb. He constantly felled South Africa’s runners, showing little regard for his personal safety in the process, he scooped up even the most wayward passes and, most tellingly of all, dominated the kicking battle.
A week ago, the All Blacks had turned the screw in that department late on, not so the Boks.
Every time Wales appeared to reach a dead end in the first half, despite dominant possession and some impressive offloads, South Africa’s counter rucking immediately halted them in their tracks. As that approach effectively denied the chance to catch and drive, Biggar would just open up play with a kick upfield.
While Biggar was the star performer in the backs, Sam Warburton and Gethin Jenkins were among the leaders in the pack, regularly turning defence into attack.
The margin of victory would have been greater had Wales made their far superior possession count in the opening half in particular, somehow the hosts turning round at 3-3, Leigh Halfpenny and Pat Lambie scoring and missing a spot kick apiece.
They tried all manner of invention to break the deadlock and get over the try line, twice employing a 15-man lineout when arguably a kick at goal would have been the wiser call.
In the second half there was a sense of the game opening up a bit more, but it never quite materialised as the aerial bombardment continued unabated and Halfpenny slotted over three more penalties to one from Lambie.
There were two key turning points in the final quarter that effectively decided the outcome. First, South Africa’s captain Jean de Villiers dislocated his knee cap in a nasty clash and moments later Cornel Hendricks was sin binned for what referee John Lacey deemed was an illegal challenge on Halfpenny under a high ball. Replays suggested the decision might have been harsh but South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer refused to criticise the decision.
“I’m not saying it was the wrong decision or that we lost because of it but it’s a grey area,” he said. “But we made too many mistakes.”
Following the sin-binning and De Villiers’ departure, Meyer said the Springboks had had to click into “defensive mode” and, while Wales did not add to the scoreboard, more tellingly neither did South Africa. There was a heart-in-mouth moment with two minutes remaining when Scott Williams bundled the ball over the dead-ball line when it was sailing out of danger to give South Africa that flast-gasp scrum. But for once Wales held firm, the script at last reaching a different conclusion.
Wales: L Halfpenny (S Williams, 64); A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, L Williams; D Biggar, R Webb; G Jenkins (A Jarvis, 74), S Baldwin, S Lee; J Ball, AW Jones; D Lydiate, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
South Africa: W le Roux; C Hendricks, J Serfontein, J de Villiers (capt), L Mvovo; P Lambie (H Pollard, 56), C Reinach (F Hougaard, 61); T Mtawarira (T Nyakane, 53), B du Plessis (A Strauss, 56), C Oosthuizen (J Redelinghuys, 69); E Etzebeth (L de Jager, 68), V Matfield; M Coetzee, T Mohoje (N Carr, 53), D Vermeulen
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)