There was a time when it felt inevitable that a Springbok team would somehow surrender a late lead to lose tight games. That entire mindset has changed, because now it feels like the Springboks will win even when they’re trailing going into the final 10 minutes.
The Boks’ growing composure in the tense final minutes of brutal Test matches is just one of the many areas in which they have excelled in recent years. That composure is a consequence of a bench that not only lifts Bok spirits, but demoralises opponents.
After a tough 50-60 minutes, instead of the pressure easing and spaces opening up, opponents realise it’s about to become more suffocating and brutal.
On Saturday, at a cold and wet Principality stadium, the world champions overcame a 12-9 halftime deficit to come from behind and win — like they did in the second and third Tests against the British & Irish Lions and against the All Blacks earlier this year.
Replacement hooker Malcolm Marx scored the decisive try from the back of a rolling maul seven minutes from time, underlining the brilliance of the replacements’ bench.
That came after Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar and Bok counterpart Handre Pollard had kicked 10 penalties between them in the difficult conditions.
The Bok “bomb squad” was not just a temporary solution to winning the World Cup in 2019, it’s a permanent part of their DNA now and will shape the way opponents approach clashes in weeks and years to come.
The fact that the Boks can invite such high-quality players onto the stage in the critical final quarter, or earlier as coach Jacques Nienaber often does, emphasises the point that the sport is now a 23-man game.
The difference between being chosen to start, or being selected as a “reserve”, is almost meaningless in the Bok environment. Nienaber isn’t choosing eight subs in the hope that they will fill gaps when they arrive. They are chosen to take performance levels up a notch when they are introduced – at whatever stage of the match that might be.
Frans Steyn epitomised that trait more than anyone. He was introduced against Wales after just 18 minutes when the unfortunate Damian Willemse suffered concussion.
Steyn proceeded to have a whale of a game. He broke tackles almost at will, kicked a 54-metre penalty, jinked and danced his way through defenders and made telling hits. He has seldom looked happier on a rugby field and he embodied the spirit of the bomb squad by not just maintaining standards, but raising them.
It was telling that at one stage Steyn was in an animated discussion with “water carrier” Willie le Roux. World Cup-winning fullback Le Roux was omitted from the squad for the Wales match, but as is always the case with this squad, he was tasked with crucial midweek analysis and coaching. He continued that role on the side of the field during the match.
“The players who came off the bench were huge today, and we know that our replacements are always one of our weapons – they were very special today,” captain Siya Kolisi said.
Nienaber added: “When you have a guy like Frans who has played 73 Tests and we’re standing in the rain outside and contemplating the game, and he says to the outside backs that he has been here before and in these conditions and this is how you play, it lifts everyone.
“He shared a bunch of technical aspects because he has been here before, made the mistakes and knows how to play. It is a positive experience with a guy like Frans who has a wealth of information and he isn’t scared to dish it out. He is an unbelievable team man.”
Like any tactic though, it must be well thought out and executed to be successful. For the bomb squad to be as effective as they are, it requires players of a very high calibre, a team culture where players understand and accept their roles, and a starting unit that lays the groundwork for the reserves to finish the job.
The starting pack won a scrum penalty and put Wales under pressure with rolling mauls, which the home team managed to stop during a tight first half. Wales were canny in attacking support lifters in the Bok lineout, limiting the world champions’ ability to properly set the maul. It pushed the boundaries of legality of course, but New Zealand ref Paul Williams took a different view.
It frustrated the visitors, but the Boks weren’t disheartened and continued with the tactic at almost every opportunity. Clearly, between Kolisi and No 8 Duane Vermeulen, who assumed the captaincy when Kolisi exited, they finally got through to Williams.
By the time the crucial maul that led to Marx’s try occurred, Wales were no longer able to illegally stop it, knowing they were under the microscope.
“It’s also important to never forget the ‘slow poison’ the starting players put into their opposition’s legs earlier in the game,” Nienaber said.
“We may not have gotten the reward from our drives in the first half, but I think the pack laid a great foundation, which opened up the opportunity for the guys that came on. They still had to use that and kick on, and I thought they did that very well today.”
It was a thrilling match in tough conditions and while the Boks deserved to win and end a four-match losing streak in Cardiff going back to 2013 they also wasted chances.
At one stage they pounded the Welsh line through multiple phases, only to turn the ball over when excellent Wales flank Ellis Jenkins pilfered yet another turnover.
In all, the Boks gave away multiple breakdown penalties and, on the few occasions, they broke the line, were unable to finish off the moves.
“It was over-eagerness, we had opportunities but we were not accurate, we went beyond the ball and didn’t show enough daylight,” Neinaber said.
“Our discipline was poor, but we did better in the second half. Considering these are the same conditions we will play in at the World Cup in 2023, we did well.”
The Boks also had a perfectly legitimate try, scored by wing Makazole Mapimpi, chalked off for a technical infringement, with some forwards said to have not retreated. Video evidence conclusively suggested otherwise.
The Boks have asked for clarity from World Rugby on why the try was disallowed, though in this instance it didn’t cost them the match.
Video: Analysis of disallowed Bok try
It was a patchy performance for the most part, which wasn’t helped by a disrupted Friday night. The Boks were forced to evacuate their hotel at 3am on Saturday morning when a fire alarm went off. After 20 minutes on the freezing pavement as central Cardiff’s late night revellers passed by with some comments, they returned to their rooms only to be disrupted with another fire alarm at 7.30am.
But, as ever, the Boks showed composure and grit to grind out another tough win under trying circumstances. Kolisi was full of praise for his team’s mentality.
“We know the kind of team Wales are; it’s always been tough when we play against them,” Kolisi said. “We know they are going to go for 80 minutes.
“But we worked really hard. It’s just a South African thing. We come from a country where people just don’t accept defeat. That’s one thing we pride ourselves in … the coach knows we can go to tough places and we are able to live there for a very long time.
“We are very privileged to be able to do what we love and put smiles on people’s faces back home. We go through so many struggles, that people get so excited when we play. We know we’ve got 80 minutes. Whatever you do, you can change someone’s mood in a couple of minutes.”
Wales lamented a pitch invader in the second half, who disrupted a flowing attacking move. Wales were convinced Liam Williams would’ve scored in the corner although there were three Bok defenders coming across in cover.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac was unhappy about the situation, but did not use it as an excuse for the defeat.
“Look, I don’t know. We just saw a two-versus-one type situation forming up,” said Pivac. “You don’t want to see that in the game.”
No more than opponents don’t want to see the bomb squad coming on.
Wales: Penalties: Dan Biggar (6)
South Africa: Try: Malcom Marx. Penalties: Handre Pollard (4), Frans Steyn, Elton Jantjies. DM