The Springboks finished the game without full-back Percy Montgomery, who had missed four kicks at goal before receiving his second yellow card and his marching orders 10 minutes from time for a high tackle on Shane Williams. But it was wing Bryan Habana who was the chief destroyer, scoring a brace - a try each half - taking his tally to 15 in 14 Tests - and had a hand in the third.
The home side's perfromance will have given Wales boss MIke Ruddock heart after recent critisism, showing spirit and heart - Martyn Williams, Shane Williams and Gareth Thomas led the fight - but they could not compete with the Springboks' precision. Wales were without six of their injured Lions plus flanker Dafydd Jones and centre Mark Taylor, who was recalled for club duty by Sale, prompting Ruddock to call for an International Rugby Board investigation.
Ruddock made 10 changes from the New Zealand game, including a return after three years in the international wilderness for winger Dafydd James. And then only today Luke Charteris, who was to start in place of the injured Brent Cockbain, was ruled out with a calf problem and Ian Gough thrust into the second row.
But Wales started nervously. Michael Owen dropped the kick-off, referee Stuart Dickinson penalised them at the scrum and Montgomery, formerly of Newport, booted South Africa into a 90-second lead. There was nothing timid about the Welsh defence, which was fast moving and powerful, but they were struggling to release the pressure early on.
And after one scare down the left, which Shane Williams dealt with courtesy of a questionable late charge on Habana, it finally told. South Africa worked the overlap and Habana, one of five nominations for IRB player of the year, dived over. Wales responded by mounting their first concerted attack of the game - Thomas, playing in the centre, led the charge deep into South African territory - and eventually earning a penalty which Jones converted.
Montgomery responded in kind and Wales then wasted a golden opportunity. After spurning a shot at goal they lost the lineout and the Springboks cleared their lines. Jones made no mistake with his second penalty on the half hour after a careless late shot from Montgomery on Sonny Parker and there were signs that Wales' electric brand of rugby was sparking into life.
Shane Williams and James were combining well but the Welsh handling was rusty - the bitter cold will not have helped - and the final pass too often went begging. It almost proved costly. After 33 minutes when South Africa counter-attacked from a dropped pass, spreading play the width of the field where prop CJ van der Linde embarked on a bulldozing run. The 19 stone prop ran through three Welsh defenders towards the line - only for Martyn Williams to wrap himself under the ball and save the try.
Jaques Fourie was then denied a try his wonderfully angled run deserved when referee Dickinson ruled Montgomery's final pass had been forward. Wales attacked again with confidence and hands that were too quick for Burger, who piled in with a late hit on Colin Charvis. The flanker was warned but Jones' penalty attempt from half-way fell short.
Montgomery scuffed a woeful effort of his own just before the interval and Wales entered half-time trailing 11-6 but in good heart.
South Africa started strongly, drawing in the Welsh defence before pinging the ball wide where left Habana waited in glorious amounts of space to score his second. Montgomery missed the conversion and after Jones had kept Welsh hopes alive with his third penalty the South African full-back was sin-binned for tackling Shane Williams off the ball. But Welsh prop Chris Horsman followed for punching and just before the hour South Africa delivered the killer blow. Parker failed to deal with Habana's grubber kick, Jantjes fell onto the loose ball and Bosman converted to put Wales 23-9 ahead.
The spirit Ruddock defended yesterday then began to shine through. Shane Williams was causing South Africa the most problems and his dart for the corner was halted only by a high tackle from Montgomery. The full-back was sent-off for a second yellow card and Wales took maximum advantage with Williams sending replacement Sweeney over for the try. But Wales were not even to have the final say and Roussouw squeezed over under the posts in the last minute.
SA Con: Meyer Bosman (80 mins)
SA Try: Danie Rossouw (79 mins)
W Con: Stephen Jones (71 mins)
W Try: Ceri Sweeney (70 mins)
SA Pen: Percy Montgomery (63 mins)
SA Con: Meyer Bosman (58 mins)
SA Try: Conrad Jantjes (57 mins)
W Pen: Stephen Jones (47 mins)
SA Try: Bryan Habana (45 mins)
W Pen: Stephen Jones (29 mins)
SA Pen: Percy Mongomery (18 mins)
W Pen: Stephen Jones (16 mins)
SATry: Bryan Habana (12 mins)
SA Pen: Percy Montgomery (2 mins)
Wales: L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets); D James (Llanelli Scarlets), G Thomas (Toulouse, capt), S Parker (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), G Cooper (Newport Gwent Dragons); D Jones (Ospreys), R Thomas (Cardiff Blues), C Horsman (Worcester), R Sidoli (Cardiff Blues), I Gough (Newport Gwent Dragons), C Charvis (Newcastle), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), M Owen (Newport Gwent Dragons)
Replacements: M Davies (Gloucester), A Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Phillips (Cardiff Blues), C Sweeney (Newport Gwent Dragons), M Watkins (Llanelli Scarlets)
South Africa: Percy Montgomery; Conrad Jantjes, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana; Meyer Bosman, Michael Claassens; Lawrence Sephaka, John Smit (capt), CJ van der Linde, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Jacques Cronje
Replacements: Hanyani Shimange, Os du Randt, Albert van den Berg, Danie Rossouw, Bolla Conradie, De Wet Barry, Brent Russell
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)