Wales look to Australia after South Africa defeat

Wales players in a huddle against South Africa

Well, it was not as bad as many feared.

Most Welsh observers before the game against South Africa would probably have taken a 28-point defeat inflicted by the world champions.

It is an indictment of the dire current state of Welsh rugby on and and off the field that a seventh successive international loss is widely accepted and considered inevitable.

Warren Gatland's side at least defied most pre-match predictions by making it a contest until two late Springbok scores confirmed the 41-13 victory.

Wales' list of absentees - players either injured, unavailable or rested - ran comfortably into double figures and they were expected to suffer a crushing defeat.

South Africa struggled to impose themselves on a first outing since retaining the World Cup eight months ago but still won the second half 27-0.

Gatland now prepares to name his squad on Monday that will fly out to Australia on Wednesday. So what has he learned?

Attacking concerns

Liam Williams (right) missed the 2024 Six Nations because of his club commitments in Japan
Liam Williams (right) missed the 2024 Six Nations because of his club commitments in Japan [Huw Evans Picture Agency]

Not for the first time with Gatland's side over the last couple of years, it was hard to recognise an effective attacking game-plan.

There is currently no noticeable identity in the offensive system and a worrying lack of creativity on display.

One try from an opportunist piece of play by Dewi Lake was all Wales had to show for their efforts.

South Africa's attack often found themselves on the outside of the Welsh defence but Wales failed to test the Springboks enough.

Wales' most effective tactic were the high kicks aimed towards the returning Liam Williams on the right wing as he reminded people of his outstanding aerial ability.

Fly-half Sam Costelow was the architect of those kicks but he is still striving to establish himself as the main attacking conductor within the system, while scrum-half Ellis Bevan was solid on his debut.

Mason Grady was handed the starting inside-centre position for the first time in his professional career as Wales attempted another new-look midfield partnership with Owen Watkin outside him.

Other options are at Wales' disposal with Ben Thomas, Eddie James and Nick Tompkins waiting on the sidelines but Grady's potential and power game is an attraction.

With Wales looking for similar success in the transition that Jamie Roberts made 16 years ago, it is early days to say Grady in the number 12 jersey did not work.

But Wales are still striving to eek the most out of Grady's talents because his physical attributes should ensure he is an international success. If utilised correctly.

Whether that happens in this current experiment, in his more favoured outside centre position or giving Grady a more roaming role from the wing, Wales have to solve this conundrum.

Captain Marvel

Wales might have lacked invention but when they needed inspiration, that was provided by skipper Lake.

The 25-year-old, who missed the Six Nations because of a hamstring injury, demonstrated his raw power and physicality against the Springboks.

"He was exceptional in terms of the way he played and led the team," said Gatland.

"I thought he showed what he is capable of doing, and I would like to think he is only going to get better as a player and a leader."

With flanker Jac Morgan ruled out of the summer tour through injury, Lake and Exeter lock Dafydd Jenkins - who led Wales during the Six Nations - are the two options to skipper the side in Australia.

"We'll have a think about that when we finalise the squad," said Gatland

"I'll talk with the other coaches before we announce that on Monday."

Lake's fitness is vital with rookie Cardiff hookers Evan Lloyd and Efan Daniel set to tour alongside him.

Ryan Elias is being rested, Elliot Dee is injured, while Sam Parry left the squad of his own accord after being unhappy with the way he was treated by Gatland.

Three not the magic number

Wales are short of experienced international hookers and a lack of fit tight-head props is also a major concern.

There were already doubts over Dillon Lewis and Henry Thomas before Cardiff prop Keiron Assiratti was forced off with an injury at Twickenham and replaced by Harri O'Connor.

"The medical team are going to reassess that and see where all those players are," said Gatland.

"There are a couple of players with back issues and Henry with a foot problem.

"We just need to make sure that assessment gets done so we can have a clear picture of where we think some of them are."

Leon Brown is already on the long-term casualty list which leaves inexperienced options like O'Connor, Archie Griffin and Ben Warren.

Gareth Thomas impressed on the loose-head but the continued absence of his former Ospreys team-mate Nicky Smith remains a baffling oversight.

Have Wales found keys to the lock?

Ben Carter missed the 2024 Six Nations because of a hamstring injury
Ben Carter missed the 2024 Six Nations because of a hamstring injury [Huw Evans Picture Agency]

Forward concerns continue into the second row with locks Adam Beard, Teddy Williams and Rhys Davies injured and Will Rowlands rested for the summer programme.

Exeter pair Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza were unavailable against South Africa because the match fell outside World Rugby's international window, although they will be available against Australia.

So Dragons duo Ben Carter and Matthew Screech, in his first Test start, were left to face World Cup-winning pair Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth.

Gatland believes they were not overawed while flanker Taine Plumtree also disrupted the Springboks line-out.

"I thought they acquitted themselves really well. It was a massive challenge for them and a big step up for those two," said Gatland.

"Ben put himself around the place physically and put in a couple of good tackles."

Wales should also be able to call on the services of Cory Hill in Australia after the recalled lock recovers from a calf injury.

"He's been running, we could have risked him out there but it wasn't happening," said Gatland.

"There's no point in him breaking down, he just needed a few extra days."

Gatland under the microscope

Warren Gatland was the British and Irish Lions head coach in 2013, 2017 and 2021
Warren Gatland was the British and Irish Lions head coach in 2013, 2017 and 2021 [Huw Evans Picture Agency]

As Wales prepare for the 12,000 miles trip, Gatland says he is ready to carry the pressure of his worst losing run.

This latest Test defeat was the seventh in a row for Wales, their longest stretch since losing eight successive games between 2012 and 2013.

Gatland proved a popular figure during his first Wales stint between 2008 and 2019 when he delivered Grand Slams and World Cup semi-finals.

Since coming back for a second stint to replace Wayne Pivac in December 2022, the landscape is more challenging with scrutiny on the New Zealander increasing.

There have been six wins and 13 losses in 19 games so far with a World Cup quarter-final place the highlight.

Wales have not won an international since beating Georgia in October 2023. They now face the Wallabies in Sydney on July 6 and Melbourne seven days later.

Gatland is finalising his squad for that challenge which will not include hooker Parry, whose departure from the set-up has raised questions about the man-management skills of the head coach.

History is also against Wales. The Wallabies might be in transition themselves after the appointment of Joe Schmidt to replace Eddie Jones following a disastrous World Cup campaign.

But Australia has not proved a happy hunting ground for Wales with no victory against the Wallabies in their own country since 1969.

So a victory in one of the two Tests is essential. Not only to ease the pressure on the Wales coach but also to lift this ailing rugby nation.