Review: Wales 24-22 South Africa: Hadleigh Parkes impresses as Wales survive Boks resurgence

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A severely weakened Wales, inspired by debutant Hadleigh Parkes, had to weather a strong South African comeback to see out the win to end the Autumn series.

It may seem a little trite to suggest that this was an unfamiliar-looking Wales lineup – that has been the case for each of the fixtures this autumn.

For Warren Gatland, this match didn’t so much present a selection crisis as an absolute deluge. Wales were minus many of their most important performers, through either injury or return to non-Welsh domestic sides.

In the back line, Gatland had to contend without Liam Williams, George North, Owen Williams and Jonathan Davies while the forward pack was missing Tomas Francis, Samson Lee, Ken Owens, Jake Ball, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty.

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Options such as Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert, Gareth Davies and Rhys Priestland were also unable to play any part.

It says something about the dismal state of the South African national side that such an understrength Wales were still considered to be the stronger party in the pre-match build-up.

And on that note, the game must be put into context. Wales have stuttered this autumn; an admirable desire to be more enterprising in attack has been juxtaposed by a lack of basic skills at times.

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This is not the all-conquering Springbok side of old. This touring squad is marginally better than last season’s awful set, but a hammering against Ireland and a close win against a French side who failed to beat Japan at home tells you all you need to know about the Boks this autumn.

Coach Allister Coetzee is under extreme pressure now and it remains to be seen whether he will survive in the role beyond the South African Rugby General Council Meeting in mid-December. Logic would suggest he will not.

Coetzee’ fate may have been sealed in the first half in Cardiff as Wales threatened to run riot. The men in red ran in three tries as they punished slack South African defending and general indecision.

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Wales can only beat what is set in front of them and they got off to a near-perfect start as they attempted to shake off accusations that they produce very little on the scoreboard in relation to the opportunities they are granted.

Wales attacked with intent from the first whistle and were given a scrum near halfway after a Springbok knock on. After an initial reset, the second effort saw quick ball for Dan Biggar, who found Hallam Amos with a neat kick ahead.

An offload to Scott Williams followed and he duly ran in from the 22-metre line with barely five minutes gone. It was his 12th international try in 51 appearances for his country.

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Leigh Halfpenny added the extras and it got better for Wales al out immediately. Flanker Josh Navidi, who has arguably been the standout performer for Wales this autumn, stole possession and the ball found its way to debutant centre Parkes, who forced Handrè Pollard to carry over the touch-line from a kick.

Outside-half Biggar was again at the centre of proceedings as he put in a smart kick into undefended space following the lineout. Parkes raced through and did well to gather the ball low to the ground as he slid over for Wales’ second try.

Halfpenny slotted other the conversion and Wales led 14-0 after just eight minutes. South Africa looked in real danger at this point as they appeared unable to stem the tide of Welsh attacks.

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Wales should have scored once again just after the ten minute mark as they pushed close to the Springbok line but Dragons winger Amos lost the ball in contact.

South Africa took advantage of this let off and put Wales under pressure for the next ten minutes or so. While they couldn’t find a gap, primarily due to excellent defensive work from Wales, they forced penalty infringements from their hosts.

After a lineout drive following a penalty, South Africa thought they had sent their reply on 19 minutes. The brilliant Malcolm Marx carried three Welshmen over the line with him after he dabbed down, but the score wasn’t to be – he was held up.

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Wales nearly punished the lax South Africa attack with an interception from Scott Williams and subsequent pass to winger Steff Evans but it came to nothing. South Africa came back for another go.

Where South Africa where having success was, predictably, the scrum. They made Wales pay with penalties in this department with tighthead prop Scott Andrews looking especially unconvincing.

The Springboks were also doing well at the breakdown and stole ball from Wales on several important occasions. But the combination of stolen ball and persistent penalties didn’t help the Boks in their effort to dent the scoreboard.

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It took a clumsy high tackle from Cardiff Blues man Navidi in Wales’ 22 to finally provide South Africa with the opportunity they  needed. After numerous failed attempts to score a try, they instead opted for three points from a Pollard place kick. 31 minutes gone, 14-3 to Wales.

Wales wasted no time in responding. With 33 minutes on the clock, the hardworking Biggar charged down a loose Springbok clearance kick. Bath number eight Taulupe Faletau, thankfully released by his club for this game, followed up and seized the ball.

A covering Springbok tackler caught him close to the line but Faletau had other ideas. His smart offload found Parkes, who ran in his second try of the afternoon before Halfpenny added two more points.

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With Wales leading by an healthy 18 points, South Africa finally got into the game after 37 minutes with a try of their own. Poor defensive work from Wales which saw tacklers evaded and a worrying lack of pace resulted in Warrick Gelant going over after a Jesse Kriel punt.

The two sides went into the dressing rooms at half time with Wales certainly the happier; they led 21-10 at the break. Springbok captain Eben Etzebeth was helped from the field at this point with a concerning injury.

South Africa started the second half as they had ended the first and pegged Wales back again on 47 minutes. Pollard went over following poor defending from Wales on the right hand side of the pitch. Pollard failed with his own conversion attempt.

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Just a minute later and two of Wales’ top performers were subbed off. Prop Rob Evans was taken off in favour of Wyn Jones while Dan Biggar, who had a very good game, was replaced by Rhys Patchell after a suspected head injury.

Patchell made his mark on matters almost immediately as he found Amos with a great kick ahead but again South Africa managed to clear their lines. It was the same story just seconds later as Wales failed to capitalise on a Parkes chip into space.

Wales, as they were in the first half, were punished by the South African scrum which brought about numerous penalties. The telling set piece took place on the halfway line and resulted in Pollard gratefully kicking for touch.

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South Africa, in Wales’ 22 at this point drove strongly for the line from the ensuing maul before Marx broke off. With Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones receiving treatment, the Springboks worked the ball left and Kriel went over.

Poor defending again then from Wales as South Africa took the lead for the first time in the game – Pollard kicked the extras with a good conversion to make it 22-21 to the Southern Hemisphere tourists.

It was back and forth from that point as Wales and South Africa exchanged attacks. Rhys Webb, brought on for the disappointing Aled Davies in the scrum-half position, was sniping well in an effort to put Wales back in front.

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Following a period of good Welsh pressure, South Africa were penalised for not rolling away after a tackle and Halfpenny slotted an easy penalty kick over from inside the South African 22 after 68 minutes.

Wales then had to sustain a series of Springbok attacks prior to the final whistle. In the end though, despite managing to almost blow it towards the conclusion, Wales saw the game out.

While this was a much-needed win for this drastically understrength Wales side, questions still remain over the ability of Gatland’s men to finish off golden opportunities and relief was the overriding emotion at the final whistle.

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Nevertheless, Wales have unearthed a new international star in Scarlets man Parkes. Biggar also impressed while his replacement, Rhys Patchell, did his selection hopes no harm.

While genuine concerns still exist over the weak scrum and alarming lack of overall pace in the side, this victory will give many in the squad, especially the youngsters, a vital confidence boost ahead of the Six Nations clash against Scotland in February.

With Scotland enjoying a stunning rise, and the impending return of many Welsh stars following injuries, the fixture promises to be an eagerly anticipated match-up and a true test of the championship credentials of both sides.