Wales face South Africa in a Test series decider on Saturday that would have seemed inconceivable just four months ago.
After losing at home to Italy in the final game of this year’s Guinness Six Nations, Wales were written off against the world champions, but a second-Test victory – their first over the Springboks in South Africa – has set up a winner-takes-all clash.
Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the key talking points heading into the game.
The pressure is on South Africa
Make no mistake, the Springboks would not have seen Wales coming. After winning 10 successive home Tests against them and seeing the Azzurri humiliate Wayne Pivac’s team in Cardiff, the series had a 3-0 South Africa triumph written all over it.
Wales, though, have made a mockery of pre-tour predictions, bouncing back in Bloemfontein after losing a first-Test thriller 32-29. South Africa have dropped two places in the world rankings and their next game after this weekend is a Rugby Championship opener against New Zealand on August 6th, so the heat is on, having been generated by a most unlikely source.
Wales tour already a triumph
Whatever happens in Cape Town on Saturday, Wales’ punishing South Africa tour is an unqualified success.
A three-point defeat and stunning 13-12 victory in the opening two Tests at altitude represent a huge collective achievement, given that Wales had won just three of 11 games against all opponents before they left Heathrow last month.
Many individuals have shone, including previously uncapped Leicester flanker Tommy Reffell, and all superbly harnessed by captain Dan Biggar. Wales also travelled minus four injured British and Irish Lions – Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty – so 14 months out from the World Cup, the picture is promising.
George North reaches another milestone
Almost 12 years after making his Wales debut as a teenager against South Africa, North becomes his country’s most-capped international back in the men’s game.
The Cape Town clash sees him reach 105 Wales appearances, overtaking former Wales fly-half and current national squad attack coach Stephen Jones. Last year, North became the youngest player in world rugby to clock up a century of caps, beating Australia skipper Michael Hooper’s record, and no-one apart from Shane Williams has scored more Wales tries than North. An extraordinary career continues to flourish.
Warrior Dan Lydiate an inspired presence
Wales flanker Lydiate suffered a knee injury so serious last year that it sidelined him from rugby for more than 12 months. At 34, some might even have doubted whether he would play at Test level again, but Lydiate does not do normality.
He made 18 tackles and missed none in Wales’ Bloemfontein victory over South Africa. He looks as influential a player now as 10 years ago, when he was named Six Nations player of the tournament following Wales’ Grand Slam triumph, which says everything about his quality and durability.
Lydiate is not so much pencilled in for next year’s World Cup, but his name written in capital letters and underlined. How South Africa will be glad to see the back of him.
Man in the middle is central
Eddie Jones often divides opinion in the rugby world, but few will disagree with his plans to convene a group of leading coaches, players and referees with an aim of removing repeated pauses in play caused by overuse of the television match official, draconian policing of high tackles and laborious set-piece officiating.
Wales were on the receiving end of four yellow cards from first Test Georgian official Nika Amashukeli, then Australia’s Angus Gardner sin-binned Alun Wyn Jones last weekend in what was a baffling decision by the officiating team. England’s Matthew Carley, outstanding when Wales and France fought out a titanic Six Nations encounter earlier this year, takes charge of the series decider, and he will be firmly under the spotlight.