South Africa's Stefan Terblanche powers through the Wales defence in 1998. Pic: Getty Images.

History Shows, Wales Can Beat South Africa . . . But Earning Their Respect Is Something Else

By Stuart Taylor

There have been some seriously dark times in the rich, turbulent history that is Welsh rugby.

You only have to recall the countless thrashings by New Zealand – some of which are too painful to remember without feeling embarrassed – but South Africa dished out the worst beating on June 27, 1998.

In the last passage of play, replacement Springbok hooker Naka Drotske dropped a pass near the try line, which saved Wales from the humiliation of having 100 points scored against them.

The match ended, 96-13 to the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria.

South Africa scored 15 tries on a very dark day for Welsh rugby.

There was a hat-trick for wing  Pieter Rossouw and had Percy Montgomery managed to land all 15 conversions instead of just the nine; then the Boks would have reached 108 points without Drotske being held responsible for his side not reaching the century.

It has to be said the Springboks side contained iconic rugby names such as Montgomery, Van der Westhuizen, Snyman, Andrews, Erasmus and captain Teichmann. The list could go on, but it is far too depressing.

South Africa’s outspoken coach Nick Mallet did a lousy job hiding his contempt for Wales as a rugby nation following his side’s record victory.


Mallett said: “Wales were one of the weakest international sides I have ever seen. However, we have to keep our victory in perspective. Wales did not have very much to offer.

“I feared the worst for them at half-time. However, it became quite easy when the gaps opened up in the second half.

“I told the guys at half-time they had to keep their feet on the ground, but I’m quite happy to keep playing teams like this and rewriting the record books. I don’t think their first team would have done any better.”

Mallett’s reference to thinking that Wales’ first team would not have done any better is a dig at all the late withdrawals from the touring party assembled by caretaker coach Dennis John.

A total of 18 players made themselves unavailable for the trip to South Africa, and a further seven were injured on tour.

Much like Mallett, Wales coach John failed to hide his utter disgust for the Wales players who withdrew from the trip.

“There are boys sitting at home in their comfort zone,” he said.

“If we don’t change, they may as well keep their kit off and take up cricket. They either want to play for their country or mess about in the sun back home.”

Former Wales caretaker coach Dennis John. Pic: Getty Images.

While Wales were being mocked throughout the rugby world following their Pretoria pummeling, their captain Kingsley Jones wanted his squad to learn from the harsh lessons dished out.

Jones remembers: “Somebody said: ‘Just forget about it’. That made me angry. I told the players not to forget about it, to wake up every day for training, remember how good South Africa were and how hard we had to work to catch them up.”

Following the match, caretaker coach John boldly told the assembled media: “We lost the battle today, but there is a big war ahead in 1999. I expect to beat South Africa if we’re drawn against them in the next World Cup.”

Many in the South African media proclaimed a disillusioned madman had spoken the words and you could hardly blame them.

Incredibly, Wales, coached by Graham Henry, defeated South Africa  29-19 in a match to celebrate the opening of the half-finished Millennium Stadium just a year later.

John’s prediction had come half true. The victory had come not at the World Cup, but in the weeks beforehand.

“I felt, if we could put our best side out, we could do it. I was very sincere when I said that,” he remembered some years later.

“Players like Mark Taylor, Stephen Jones and Dafydd Jones went on to have great careers. Perhaps it was the making of them. I wouldn’t say bad about anybody who went on that tour because they wanted to be there, and they all tried their best.”

Fast-forward to the present day, and Stephen Jones is now part of Wayne Pivac’s coaching team, who have travelled to South Africa ahead of a three-Test series.


On Saturday, the tour sees Wales return to the scene of the darkest day in Welsh rugby history, Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria.

Much like in 1998, the South African media are writing off Wales’ chances of victory in any of the three matches this summer.

Pivac’s 34-man squad face the unenviable task of playing the current world champions three times in consecutive weeks. Before a ball has been kicked, sections of the South African media have already started mocking Wales.

An online video is titled: “Wales’ tour is doomed to failure.” Footage shows journalists Mark Keohane and Zelim Nel discussing the chances of Picac’s Wales against the Boks.

Few can argue too much with the 3-0 series defeat being predicted by the duo; however,  many will feel irritated by the pathetic Welsh accents they use when discussing Wales.

The pair have seemingly been taking media tips from Tory MP Michael Gove on how best to alienate sections of society in less than two minutes.

They patronisingly mimic the Welsh accent in much the same way Gove had attempted a Liverpool and American accent during a recent live television interview.

Keohane gleefully said: “They’ve come here ten times, and they’ve lost ten times. The average score is 45-10. If you take the Welsh URC matches in South Africa this year – eight matches, eight defeats and an average score of 41-13.

“It’s all in the stars. Jacques Nienaber, Rassie Erasmus – we expect nothing less than a 3-0 drubbing of the Welsh.”


He added: “They’re not using this to see how youngsters go at home. Instead, they want to pump Wales and pump them good.”

Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber doesn’t seem to hold much fear over Wales, either.

“When I had dinner with their coach Wayne Pivac in Cape Town, he didn’t mince his words,” said Nienber.

“He said we have never won a series in South Africa, and that’s our mission. Of course, I laughed, but I also realised he was straight up about it, so they’ll be focused on this series.

We haven’t spoken about Wales much as a Springbok team, but I think our biggest challenge will be finding solutions.

‘I think they are desperate and desperate people are always dangerous. So, we will prepare for what we believe is coming our way, but it might be completely different.

“As the game goes on, after 10 minutes, we will probably say if they have changed this or that, but we will have to be solution-driven on the field to adapt to changes,”

So what can Wales realistically expect from the three-match series?


While Pivac is aiming for a series victory, he has to have that as his aim, or there is no point in coaching; most Welsh fans will be ecstatic if Wales manage to be competitive over the three matches.

A broadly experienced squad, captained by Dan Biggar, has travelled south, littered with some inexperienced players. It is a squad missing the experience of Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty, Arron Wainwright, Uilisi Halaholo and Leigh Halfpenny.

It could be a baptism of fire for uncapped players like back-rowers James Ratti and Tommy Reffell, and especially fellow uncapped props Sam Wainwright and Harri O’Connor, but you have to start somewhere.

It is wise to remember that even on that fateful day in Pretoria 24 years ago, Wales gave a debut to lock Ian Gough, who went on to win 64 caps, including a Grand slam in 2008.

Also playing his first game for Wales off the bench that day was current backs coach Stephen Jones.

He went on to captain his country and win 104 caps for Wales and a further six for the British and Irish Lions. Jones was a member of Wales’ Grand Slam-winning sides of 2005 and 2008 and played in four Rugby World Cups.


The odds may be stacked against Wales this summer – and even one Test victory looks a very tall order – but if Pivac’s men can gain respect with three credible performances, it will boost morale.

If potential debutants Ratti, Reffell, Wainwright and O’Connor go on to have careers anywhere near as successful as Jones and Gough, this tour may be viewed as a success by those in Wales.

However, earning the respect of the South African rugby-loving public and media is a whole different ball game.


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