Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber defended his decision to make 14 changes in his starting line-up despite his experimental team suffering an agonising 13-12 loss in the second Test against Wales in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The victory was the first by Wales against the Springboks in South Africa after 11 losses spanning 58 years, including a 96-13 drubbing in 1998.
Nienaber admitted the Springboks were now under pressure with the teams locked at 1-1 going into the third and final match in Cape Town this coming Saturday.
“We’re playing for our fans and for South Africa and the whole team feels that we let this phenomenal crowd down tonight by not getting a victory,” said Nienaber after Wales sealed a last-gasp win in front of a capacity 46,000 crowd.
“Going into the last game, it’s going to be a final.”
Nienaber said the Bloemfontein Test was part of a long-term plan for the World Cup champions ahead of next year’s defence in France.
He said he had always wanted to give game time to all the players in a 42-man squad over the course of the Wales series — and that could have been compromised if he had stuck with the team that won the first Test 32-29 in Pretoria.
He drew a parallel with two other current series in which Northern Hemisphere teams Ireland and England overturned first-Test defeats against New Zealand and Australia respectively.
“The conservative route would have been to try to wrap up the series now,” he said.
“If you look at the Test matches this weekend, you can never be sure you can beat Wales.
“We could have gone the conservative route but let’s say we didn’t win the Test match tonight — then we would probably have never given the other guys an opportunity.
“Now we’ve got answers on 42 players, and that was always the plan. We knew the risks involved, but the answers we got outweighed the risk.”
As it was, Nienaber said his revamped team had a great opportunity to clinch the series, missing numerous opportunities in the first half and failing to defend a 12-3 lead going into the last quarter of the match.
Nienaber gave six players Test debuts, with only lock Eben Etzebeth starting both Tests.
“We had guys playing their first Test match; guys in-form in different competitions all over the world, but Test matches are different and small margins cost you games,” he said.
Nienaber added the defeat had hurt the team: “The last 15-20 minutes, being 12-3 up, we let ourselves down.
“But it’s good for the players to understand what a Test match intensity is like, what your accuracy levels have to be. The players would have learned a lot from that as we did from them,” he said.