Who will make it into Wales’ final World Cup squad after Springboks mauling?
Two minutes from time at the Principality Stadium, Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ was piped through the sound system, with the crowd taking over in belting out the chorus once the music stopped.
It was somehow appropriate, in more ways than one, given Wales’ situation.
For much of the game against South Africa, they had indeed been living on a prayer, such was the gulf between the two sides.
The end result (52-16) was a record home defeat at the hands of the Springboks, comfortably surpassing the 34-12 loss from November 2007.
It was also the heaviest defeat in all of Warren Gatland’s 133 games in charge of Wales.
Expressing his disappointment afterwards, the Kiwi coach admitted his team had been dominated physically on both sides of the ball, while also gifting soft tries.
When that happens, you literally don’t have a prayer.
It was always going to be a daunting challenge for an inexperienced Welsh side that featured ten players with ten or fewer caps.
In the end, it was simply too much for them as they were outmuscled, outclassed and outscored by eight tries to one, with the visitors so much more effective in their carrying and supplementing their physical prowess with a clinical cutting edge.
Lots of lessons will have been learned amid some harsh realities on a day when the home side missed 26 tackles and offered little in attack.
Now cue further prayers, with a number of Welsh wannabes hoping their’s will be answered in the form of selection for the World Cup.
Gatland names his final 33-man squad on Monday lunchtime and there will a lot of anxious people waiting to see if they make the cut.
Saturday’s game against the world champions was the final chance for borderline and fringe figures to stake their claim for a seat on the plane to France.
So, who, if anyone, advanced their cause?
Well, winger Rio Dyer was the one who did himself most favours.
When the Wales team was originally named on Wednesday, it looked like being a potential shoot out between Dyer and fellow wing Alex Cuthbert for a spot in the squad.
But unfortunately for Cuthbert, a tight calf forced his withdrawal from the side, meaning he hasn’t had any game time in the warm-up programme.
So it was over to Dyer to see if he could grab his opportunity and that he did, emerging as the stand-out Welsh player.
He was excellent in the air, chasing and competing to good effect, while he was also the hosts’ main attacking threat with ball in hand.
The Dragons speedster produced a number of nice breaks, with his burst down the left ten minutes into the second half a rare moment that brought the home fans in the 68,511 crowd to their feet.
After the game, Gatland made a point of saying his defence has improved and exonerated him of blame over the yellow card which coincided with a contentious penalty try, arguing Canan Moodie had already touched the ball before the covering Dyer knocked it into touch.
So, a positive all-round report on the 23-year-old from Newport who must now be in with a good shot of making the squad.
Gatland has indicated he is likely to take just the four back-three players, so it could well be Dyer joining Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams.
With Gareth Anscombe expected to be included among three fly-halves – alongside Dan Biggar and Sam Costelow – that provides another player with top level experience at full-back, to supplement first choice 15 Liam Williams.
That, in turn, could see Leigh Halfpenny miss out, opening the door for Dyer.
Plenty to play for
Elsewhere, Johnny Williams was a man with plenty to play for, as he made his first appearance of the summer after recovering from injury.
In truth, it was a bit of a mixed bag from the Scarlets centre. He did carry strongly and beat defenders five times. But there were also a couple of blots on his copy book, with the interception try he handed to Man of the Match Moodie and the tackle he missed on Malcolm Marx ahead of winger Moodie’s opening try.
So where does that leave us in the centre, which has been a real wide-open area and one of the hardest to predict?
The only player really nailed on is George North. You would think Mason Grady would probably then be the second 13. Now admittedly, he did have a moment to forget just before the break on Saturday when he failed to hold on to the ball as he was swung around on his try-line, gifting a score to opposite number Jesse Kriel.
But the 21-year-old’s raw physical attributes and his ability to cover wing may yet see him board the plane.
As for inside centre, it looks like being two out of Johnny Williams, Nick Tompkins and Max Llewellyn.
Now that really is a tight call. Tompkins offers something a bit different with his passing range, his leg drive in contact and his experience. So does Gatland go for the variety he offers or does he go with size across the board in midfield? We shall see.
Up front, Cardiff props Corey Domachowski and Keiron Assiratti had been handed another chance to start together and state their case. Given the men they were up against – Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff – opportunity doesn’t get much harder to grasp and it proved to be a tough examination for them.
The first half saw the hosts pinged for a series of scrum offences as the juggernaut Boks put in successive shoves to secure the upper hand in the tight.
Shortly after the resumption, it was all change in both front rows and it still remained a big test, as you would expect with the arrival of the bomb squad – Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Vincent Koch.
Indeed, the first scrum after the refresh brought yet another Boks penalty. However, the introduction of replacement propping pair Nicky Smith and Henry Thomas did result in some degree of solidity on Welsh ball.
Tighthead Thomas had helped with a similar shoring up as a debut sub against England a fortnight ago and you do think he may have done enough to secure a squad spot alongside experienced duo Tomas Francis and Dillon Lewis.
At hooker, Elliot Dee again emerged with credit, hitting his lineout targets with reassuring regularity and putting in 11 tackles during his 55 minute shift. Provided Dewi Lake and Ryan Elias are both considered likely to win their fitness battles in time, there’s your trio, with a strong argument for Dee starting the group opener against Fiji on form.
One row back, at lock, it is likely to be a choice between Ben Carter and Rhys Davies to join Will Rowlands, Dafydd Jenkins and Adam Beard. On balance, the versatility of Davies – who has shown with the Ospreys he can do a job at 6 – may get him the edge.
Then, finally, it’s on to the breakaway unit, which is maybe the toughest area to call of the lot.
Jac Morgan, Taulupe Faletau and Aaron Wainwright are certainties, with flanker Morgan the red hot favourite to be named World Cup captain, following in the footsteps of another openside in his early 20s from some 12 years ago – a certain Sam Warburton.
But as to which three players join them, well that’s where it gets tricky.
There is likely to be a spot for one hybrid player who can cover both lock and back row. Provided his shoulder injury isn’t viewed as too much of an impediment, you can see the agile Taine Plumtree edging out Chris Tshiunza for this role.
Then it’s all down to balance. Taine Basham’s ability to play right across the back row could well earn him a ticket. That would leave room for one specialist – either Dan Lydiate or Tommy Reffell.
As the serial tackling Lydiate is the only out and out defensive 6 in the mix, logic points to him making it, which could mean Reffell missing out, with both Morgan and Basham already on board as 7 options.
But what do I know! Ultimately, it’s up to Gatland and this is what he had to say post match on the subject of squad selection.
“We’ll go back to the hotel, sit down as coaches, and hopefully finalise it. Possibly some of those questions that we’ve got would have made it a little bit easier for our discussions,” he said.
“I think the big thing is we wanted to give everyone an opportunity and we wanted to find out about players.
“Players that have had some game time, that have been a part of the squad for the last number of weeks will hopefully come in a little bit better prepared. I think for a large number of those, they would have learnt a huge amount from today’s experience.
“I am pretty pleased with the progression we’ve made, how hard we’ve worked along with looking at some young players and giving them opportunities.
“A lot of it’s probably down to those learning experiences, and for a lot of those young players you couldn’t have given them a better opportunity than playing against a world-class quality side who were fully loaded and made the most of their opportunities.”
And now it’s time for the final call – the final 33. All will soon be revealed.
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