WALES suffered heartbreak in their bid for a historic first win on South African soil after a last-gasp penalty try in Nelspruit.
It seemed that Warren Gatland’s gallant side were about to claim arguably Wales’ greatest away win.
They led 30-17 going inside the last 10 minutes only to be hit by a pair of late converted Springbok tries – and a gutting, but correct, call by referee Steve Walsh.
The official is never far away from controversy but got it spot-on when he gave a penalty try at the death after full-back Liam Williams shoulder-charged South Africa wing Cornal Hendricks to prevent him crossing in the corner.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Williams acted instinctively to protect his line, but if only home fly-half Morne Steyn had needed to add the extras from the touchline.
There was still time for fly-half Dan Biggar to attempt a pair of long-range drop goals but they didn’t come close and, alas, Wales have another plucky loss to a southern hemisphere big gun to add to their collection.
It was still an incredible turnaround by captain Alun Wyn Jones and his team, who went from being humbled 38-16 in the first Test in Durban to coming agonisingly close to toppling the second best side in the world on their own patch.
Wales had never won in South Africa and had just one win, at the Millennium Stadium in 1999, and one draw, at Cardiff Arms Park in 1970, to their name from 28 attempts.
Few – this reporter included – gave them a chance of improving their record at Mbombela Stadium but Wales came so, so close in a Test classic.
They raced into a 17-0 lead, saw their advantage cut to three after a pair of costly yellow cards, regained their composure to stretch away but then got pipped at the post.
Wales made a sharp start, showing more invention and patience with ball in hand and more urgency in defence.
Biggar missed an early shot at goal but made no mistake from the tee after 12 minutes for a deserved 3-0 lead.
It got even better on the 20th minute when wing Alex Cuthbert cut a lovely line from solid scrum ball before offloading for inside centre Jamie Roberts to power over.
Biggar added the extras and Wales entered the second quarter of the game with a nice lead whereas in Durban it had been game over following three Springboks tries.
The belief was soaring at the tourists were incredibly 17-0 up after 23 minutes when a patient, well-crafted attack ended with Cuthbert reaching over for a second try.
The ‘Boks were feeling the heat and making errors galore but turned to their powerful pack to get a foothold in the game.
They applied the squeeze through a driving maul and lock Luke Charteris was sin-binned for stopping it illegally five metres shy of the line.
The ‘Boks botched the following attempt at a drive but kept powering forward and were correctly awarded a penalty try by referee Steve Walsh, who also reduced the visitors to 13 men by showing Biggar yellow.
It went from 17-0 to 17-14 in the blink of an eye when the South Africans attacked from their own 22, centre JP Pietersen breaking clear to enable full-back Willie le Roux to put over wing Cornal Hendricks.
Wales from being in command were creaking and were pleased to hear the half-time whistle with their lead intact.
And the 14 men could have increased their buffer in the opening exchanges of the second half but captain Alun Wyn Jones wasn’t quite able to pick up and dive over five metres out after le Roux’s clearance rebounded off Wales full-back Liam Williams.
But they struck when back to 15 men after hooker Ken Owens crashed over from close range with Biggar adding the conversion to make it 24-14.
South Africa came back but sterling defence limited them to a Morne Steyn penalty to make it 24-17 after 55 minutes.
But things swung right back to Wales from the restart when Biggar banged over a penalty and then home lock Flip van der Merwe was yellow-carded for taking Alun Wyn Jones out in the air.
This was Wales’ chance to make history and they inched a step closer when a strong scrum enabled Biggar to make it 30-17.
But back came the Springboks.
Wales bravely defended their line but the magic feet of le Roux eventually found a way through with Steyn’s conversion making it 30-24 with seven minutes remaining.
Then came the late, late drama and it will be little consolation to Wales that they played their part in a Test classic.
South Africa: W le Roux, C Hendricks, JP Pietersen, J Serfontein (W Olivier 74), B Habana, M Steyn (R Pienaar 23-29), F du Preez, T Mtawarira (G Steenkamp 65), B du Plessis (S Brits 65), J du Plessis (C Oosthuizen 58), F van der Merwe (L de Jager 45-49), V Matfield (captain), F Louw, W Alberts (S Burger 24), D Vermeulen.
Scorers: tries – penalty (2), C Hendricks, W le Roux; conversions – M Steyn (4); penalty – M Steyne
Yellow card: F van der Werwe
Wales: L Williams, A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North, D Biggar, M Phillips, G Jenkins (P James 74), K Owens (M Rees 74), S Lee (A Jarvis 51), L Charteris (J Ball 74), AW Jones (captain), D Lydiate, J Turnbull, T Faletau.
Scorers: tries – J Roberts, A Cuthbert, K Owens; conversions – D Biggar (3); penalties – D Biggar (2) Yellow cards: L Charteris, D Biggar
Referee: Steve Walsh(Australia)
Argus star man: Gethin Jenkins