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Wales report card in South Africa — the out-and-out revelation, the 'unreal' player and those left holding tackle bags

Wales returned home from South Africa in 1998 not so much with a report card to ponder as a template for how not to tackle a rugby superpower in their own backyard.

Colin Charvis raged at some of those who had skipped the trip, coach Dennis John said that unless attitudes changed “the boys who are sitting back in the comfort zone may as well leave their kit off and go and play cricket”.

Some of the absentees had genuine reasons for not being on tour. But with 18 players off limits and a further eight injured during the trek south, the exercise predictably turned into a spectacular misadventure, culminating in a 96-13 Test hiding.

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Wales have done things differently on this trip, touring with their strongest available squad and proving competitive in every game against the world champions. They had clear chances to win the opening Test and did manage to get the job done a week later.

If the final contest proved a match too far for the banged-about tourists, they can return home with their heads held high after an effort that defied expectations.

Here’s how the report card looks…

The out-and-out revelation

Tommy Reffell fits the bill here because of the way he’s hit the ground running in Test rugby. His quality for Leicester Tigers was never in doubt, of course.

But it’s a different challenge altogether to stand out in the Test arena against the world champions in their own backyard.

Reffell did exactly that in this series, showing no fear as he tore into breakdowns, piled up big tackle counts and stayed close to the ball for virtually every minute of every game.

With his heart-and-soul modus operandi and willingness to venture into harm’s way without a second thought, he has embodied the spirit of Wayne Pivac’s side in South Africa.

Little wonder plaudits have come in from far and wide, with The Rugby Paper hailing him as a “brand new superstar in the making” and The Sunday Times calling him “the find of the summer”.

Reffell had a remarkable tour.

Old hands deliver

Alongside Reffell in the back row, Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau were close to shooting off the scale of excellence. You can read more about Lydiate, Welsh rugby's great gladiator, here.

Lydiate’s display in the second Test was one of his finest — 18 tackles and no misses, many of the hits bringing giant South African forwards to ground. Without him, Wales would not have won. It was a sensational exhibition of defending.

Faletau was Faletau in the first two Tests, priceless in every respect.

When he failed to emerge from the tunnel for the final game of the series, with an injury ruling him out, hopes of a Welsh victory diminished.

That said, Josh Navidi could not have done much more, finishing as Wales’ top tackler and frontline forward ball-carrier. Alun Wyn Jones also made a major impact off the bench, while in the first Test Dan Biggar proved inspirational, albeit Wales lost.

Liam Williams always appeared to have time on his side and George North reminded all of his quality with a powerful effort in Cape Town. The challenge for Wales is to get North on the ball more. He is too big an attacking asset just to be confined to defensive duties.

He's far from a stalwart, but a word, too, for Will Rowlands at lock, with his ubiquitous show in the first Test outstanding. He and Adam Beard are developing a lock partnership that could serve Wales well for years.

The unsung prop who was 'unreal'

That would be Gareth Thomas. “He’s been brilliant on this tour,” said Jamie Roberts in commentary for Sky Sports during the final Test.

“Dan Lyidate gets a lot of the plaudits for his tackling but Gareth Thomas, equally, [deserves plaudits]. Some of the shots on the advantage line in the last two weeks have been unreal.

“He’s put in a great shift for Wales in this series.”

It takes courage and technique to tackle as low as the likes of Thomas and Lydiate manage. Thomas has also battled hard in the scrums.

He was up against a veritable monster in the 6ft 3in, 20st 6lb Frans Malherbe and the other side of the Welsh set-piece wasn’t guaranteed to be stable but Thomas dug in and emerged with credit.

The Ospreys man also found time to send out a few passes and put in carries. Wales have a Lions Test prop in Wyn Jones in their squad, but Thomas will return home as their front-line option.

The under-employed seven

With no midweek games to play, it was inevitable that some Wales players were not going to see action on this tour. For them, the trip has doubtless dragged amid all the holding of tackle bags.

Seven players didn’t take the field over the three Tests — Sam Parry, Harri O’Connor, Ben Carter, James Ratti, Gareth Davies, Rhys Patchell and Johnny Williams.

Ratti must be getting used to benching it, with the back rower not used in the Six Nations, either. Yet he is a player capable of making an impact.

Taine Basham hadn’t played on tour before the final Test, only for the situation to change after Taulupe Faletau’s late withdrawal prompted Josh Navidi to be drafted into the starting line-up and Basham to feature on the bench.

The Dragon showed his dynamism after he came on, making ground and stopping Springbok ball-carriers. In 25 minutes, he carried the ball four times for 17 metres and also made five tackles without a miss.

Some replacements can struggle to get into games. But Basham made an impact.

At least he had a chance. For the likes of Davies, Williams, Ratti, Parry, Carter and Co, it was a watching brief on this tour.

They can but hope for better luck in the next squad.

Verdict on the coach

Wayne Pivac heads back to Wales with his stock back on the rise.

It’s not exactly true to say it couldn’t have dipped much lower after a home defeat to Italy in the Six Nations, but the tour to South Africa looked daunting in many respects.

The regions had had heavy losses against South African opposition in the republic this season. There were quiet concerns among some Wales could be wiped out in all three Tests.

But they managed to give the Springboks a hurry-up, and for that credit needs to go firstly to the head coach.

Wales are not playing the free-flowing game the Scarlets played with such success under Pivac. Indeed, their attacking game has been conspicuous by its absence for much of this tour. But they have scrapped for everything, box-kicked well, stayed in the fight and defended with attitude.

Pivac’s reward will be to see any doubts removed about whether he will take Wales to the World Cup next year. That's happening.

Wales took their eye off the ball against Italy in the Six Nations amid the player milestones that were being celebrated that week.

But when they have their business heads on they can compete with anyone.

Areas to improve

Let's suggest Welsh discipline could do with some attention.

Pivac’s side gave away 42 penalties over the three Tests and conceded five yellow cards. Admittedly, some of those cards were unjust, most notably Louis Rees-Zammit’s in the opening Test and Alun Wyn Jones’ for a phantom offence in game two.

Pressure forced many of the transgressions, but a side giving away an average of 14 penalties a game and operating with depleted numbers is making it hard for itself.

The Welsh set-piece could also be better, though they won’t find many more opponents stronger in that area than South Africa. The tourists actually performed well in the scrums given that they were without their only true scrummaging tighthead for all but a minute of the series, with Tomas Francis sustaining an injury in the first Test. Plenty feared for Sam Wainwright but the Test novice let no-one down.

The lineout wobbled. South Africa saw two throws go astray over the series, Wales’ malfunctioned eight times. Dewi Lake was immense in other areas, but he has to sort out his darts. Practise until he can’t get them wrong, perhaps. You can read more about Lake here.

Wales’ attack? Not overly in evidence for much of the series, yet in flashes the tourists showed they could put it together, with Louis Rees-Zammit’s first try in Pretoria, Josh Adams’ score in Bloemfontein and Tommy Reffell’s touchdown in Cape Town all memorable affairs.

But Wales need to be bolder. Win more ball and be bolder.

Most memorable moment

Look no further than Gareth Anscombe’s kick to create history in Bloemfontein. Wales had never beaten the Springboks in South Africa before.

Anscombe was close to the touchline, the clock was counting down, supporters were doing their best to put him off, but the Wales replacement fly-half calmly bisected the posts.

The kick involved composure, technique and pinpoint accuracy.

Brilliant.

Best picture

Take a look at the shot below, with two young Welsh players, Dewi Lake and Tommy Reffell, not buying whatever South Africa's Malcolm Marx is selling. The Welsh pair are Test novices remember. The image doesn't suggest as much, with the duo appearing fearless and enjoying every minute of it.

Dewi Lake and Tommy Reffell of Wales have words with Malcolm Marx of South Africa (© Huw Evans Picture Agency)

Biggest disappointment

The pitch in Cape Town.

Had the Dog & Duck thirds had to play the Lamb & Flag seconds on it, there would have been complaints.

Best quotes

“My approach won't change. What you see is what you get with me." Dan Biggar on his captaincy style.

“If there had been five or six changes, you would maybe have raised an eyebrow. But 14 changes, it’s overwhelming. I don’t think it shows respect for Wales and, looking logically, there is only one way for Wales to view it and that’s to give them a good ‘tonking’.” Sir Gareth Edwards is unimpressed by South Africa’s decision to make wholesale changes for the second Test.

"That kick is a culmination of so many people's work."

Gareth Anscombe, firing again after his prolonged stint in injury hell, selflessly thanks others after winning the second Test for Wales with that nerveless conversion.

“We’re very pleased that the positives outweigh the negatives.” Wayne Pivac at the end.

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