PRINCIPALITY STADIUM, Cardiff -- It took until the last throes of the game for Wales to secure victory over the Springboks but it should have been safely tucked up way before then. The hosts' strange habit of tailing off for periods of the match nearly cost them against a South African team who bounced back from a dismal first half to almost snatch the win.
It was a weird old match. Wales' backs looked far more dangerous than the Boks, while the Springboks' pack offered far more ballast. Their backs, in the first half, looked void of structure and an attacking template to cause any prolonged worry. Wales were 18 points to the good after 35 minutes, but as replacements disrupted their rhythm and the Boks finally realised they should just keep it in the pack, South Africa nearly ended a miserable year with a victory where for so much of the first-half it looked the home side would win at a canter.
There was an underwhelming pre-match atmosphere. Wales were without nine first-teamers, South Africa arrived with a slightly dishevelled bunch of players and a coach widely expected to be gone before Christmas. The Boks too were without a host of their star names. Folk on St Mary's Street could be heard asking if this was a game too far, but then this wonderful stadium has a way of creating excitement, and an atmosphere, aided by the vocal chords of the 65,000-odd supporters who travelled on this bitterly cold day to Cardiff.
It certainly didn't want for effort, but while Wales played with stacks of character they should have triumphed with greater breathing room.
The Boks for the first 30 minutes looked unorganised, low on confidence and as if it was the first time they had ever played together. There was no understanding at half-back while Andries Coetzee had a desperate first half at fullback. But then the brilliant Pieter-Steph du Toit saw more of the ball, they shunted Wales' scrum back, started getting the edge in the breakdown through Siya Kolisi and the omnipresent Malcolm Marx continued doing what he does best. In the end, having taken a one-point lead after 56 minutes, they just fell short.
For Wales their star man was debutant Hadleigh Parkes. He scored twice on his debut -- the first Wales player to do so since George North in 2010 -- having qualified for Wales through residency Saturday morning. He was assured with ball in hand, kicked through nicely and his pick up for his first score was a great piece of intuition.
Josh Navidi had another busy game while Parkes and Scott Williams linked up nicely in the centres. Aled Davies was efficient at scrum-half, but lacks the running game of Rhys Webb while Dan Biggar played a role in their three tries before being removed after 48 minutes. With nine first-team players missing -- 16 overall -- this was a case of job done and on to the Six Nations.
The Springboks were dreadful in the first half. Their defence was there in name only with Ross Cronje offering little at scrum-half and Coetzee unreliable at fullback.
But then they found something. Ironically they played their best rugby without Eben Etzebeth on the field after he was substituted at half time. And that is the weird thing about this current team; they have a pack to rival the best in world rugby -- even without the Du Plessis brothers, Coenie Oosthuizen, Tendai Mtawarira, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen, Warren Whiteley, etc -- but they need more than that.
They came here to bully Wales up front, but it was a far more expansive match than they perhaps expected. It took them until the break to find a plan b and they so nearly forced an unlikely victory.
For Wales this will be an autumn which posed as many questions as answers. They will hope Leon Brown comes through as a viable option as third-choice loosehead while they need their injured contingent back as soon as possible. But they have now seen their fringe players in a Test environment and Warren Gatland will be getting a good idea of who he can trust come 2019.
The sight of Parkes in a Welsh jersey is also an added bonus for their 10-12 axis and he looks to be someone who can bring a huge amount to this team.
South Africa's year finishes on a low note, symptomatic of a dismal 2017 by their high standards. Something needs to change in the management team if they are to build a team who can challenge for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. But on a cold afternoon in Cardiff, Wales ensured their year ended on a high as inevitable optimism creeps back in.