It’s nine in a row for the assassins and with England next up in Cardiff!
THE ‘silent assassins’ picked the Springboks off last night in defence of their Cardiff citadel, their marksmanship turning the last Test of the year into an historic occasion.
At long last Wales had completed their first Autumn Slam, the most meaningful of four successive weeks in four weeks reminding the rest that the official No. 3 position in the global rankings is theirs by right.
Reaffirmation of their rarefied status as the next best team behind the All Blacks and the All Greens also reinforced the accuracy of Rassie Erasmus’ pre-match description of Wales as a team going quietly about their business with all the ruthless stealth of Al Pacino in The Godfather.
Nobody embodied the quality in more striking fashion than Ellis Jenkins, plucked from the supporting cast at the last-minute to play the game of his life. A performance that included a great deal more than making one try and saving another against all odds will not have surprised his legions of fans.
What a shame that his night of nights should end in everyone’s man-of-thematch being carried off on a stretcher wearing an oxygen mask. If the knee damage proves as serious as the Wales management fear, Jenkins will be resigned to sitting out the Six Nations.
All the plaudits rightly showered on Ireland ought not to shroud the prospect of the Six Nations providing more than one serious contender in Japan next year.
A gripping Test match ended with Wales going away in racing parlance, not just at the expense of any old opponent but one containing 11 of the starting line-up for the Boks’ startling win in Wellington two months ago.
Not since the golden days of the Seventies can Wales have confronted South Africa fortified by imposing pillars of collective selfbelief. As a sign of how times have changed, they were not afraid to articulate their sense of expectation at rising to a fixture which used to be a routine away win.
With a rousing disregard for tempting fate, Warren Gatland spoke about Wales ‘being in a really good place’. Maybe so but the way the Boks started, bristling with intent, would have had him squirming on his lofty perch.
Cheslin Kolbe, promoted from the bench as a late replacement for Sbu Nkosi, left a trail of wreckage from his first two runs but Wales somehow survived the experience by the skin of their teeth. The Toulouse wing left both centres floundering in his wake in threatening to dance his way through the entire back division.
When the Boks did outflank Wales on the opposite wing, Pieter-Steph du Toit touched down in the corner but not before grazing the touchline on his way. Nobody would have been more relieved at the luckiest of escapes than George North and Liam Williams.
Undaunted, the Boks engineered another dangerous response only for Wales to be reprieved again, this time by referee Luke Pearce’s marginal decision in calling Pollard’s flat pass to a flying Aphiwe Dyantyi forward.
As soon as Wales eventually found a bit of ball to play with, they wasted no time in teaching the Boks a painful lesson in how to rattle the scoreboard. Within the space of six minutes they had given it the mighty shake that comes from two converted tries, one from an unlikely source, the other from a familiar one.
The man who nursed his team through their apprehensive start was not supposed to have been on the field, at least not from the start. Jenkins announced his presence by blasting the Boks’ defensive door clean off its hinges.
He dummied his way to within ten metres of the posts, resisted all temptation to go for glory and drew the last man, Willie Le Roux, in textbook fashion to provide a selfless inside pass for someone else to finish it off. The beneficiary turned out to be Tomas Francis, a tighthead not noted for his finishing, let alone between the posts.
One of Exeter’s clutch of Test props, Francis was never going to miss, not from a maximum of range of five metres which gave the despairing Pollard no hope of rescuing a lost cause.
The Boks were still trying to come to terms with the shock when Anscombe engineered the fleeting prospect of another member of the Front Row Union following suit. Ken Owens’ stampeding run may have come up short but it amounted to a clear warning about what was to come.
With their opponents marooned under mounting pressure, Anscombe’s imperious pass over North’s head found full-back Liam Williams in enough space to finish it off in some style all by himself. Pollard, left high and dry as the last defender, again found himself cast in the role as the boy on the burning deck.
South Africa’s harassed fly-half responded to the double hit with a long-range penalty. Anscombe’s miss from much closer ten minutes before the break proved the prelude to a period when Wales reverted to riding their luck.
Embrose Papier shredded the blindside defence and made a hopeless situation all the more so for Wales with a perfectly weighted grubber. The novice scrum-half then stooped to ruin his own masterpiece with a knockon.
That a besieged Wales somehow managed to protect their 11-point lead until half-time owed everything to Jenkins’ powers of resistance. How the Blues’ flanker got a hand underneath Jesse Kriel to deny
the Boks’ centre a try only he knows.
The TMO, Simon McDowell, ruled that Kriel had not grounded the ball, a verdict that could easily have gone the other way. Kriel was not to be denied, the sharpest of finishes prompting a tsunami of nervous anxiety to sweep through the serried ranks of the Red Dragon brotherhood.
Like a matador going for the kill, the Boks went for a ten-man line-out and still failed to put Wales away. A deliberate collapsing of the maul brought them another penalty and a swift rebuke from Pearce after Kriel bellowed in his ear for a yellow card.Had Wales been given one, they could not have complained. Instead Pearce rightly admonished Kriel for his cheek “I don’t need you telling me it’s a yellow. Any more and you might end up getting one yourself.’’
Elton Jantjies’ penalty going into the last quarter cut the deficit to three before Dan Biggar followed him off the bench to nail the decisive blows from two late penalties. That the first ought to have gone the other way will not have diluted Welsh celebrations, nine on the bounce with England and Ireland next up in Cardiff in the Six Nations.
Bring them on….
Livewire: Liam Williams dives in for Wales’ second try
Sharp finish: Jesse Kriel scores South Africa’s first try
Prop idol: Tomas Francis runs in to score