Boks offer Wales last shot at big scalp before Cup
History suggests the serial losses by Wales to rugby’s big three will reach 23 in a row.
South Africa, beaten by Wales once in 108 years, is the obligatory favorite to win a 17th straight test against the Welsh when the teams meet Saturday in Cardiff.
And if the Springboks do, it will matter little in the bigger picture shaped by Wales coach Warren Gatland.
That picture is the Rugby World Cup less than 10 months away.
So, as for that six-year losing streak to the big guns, extended by the latest heart-breaking losses to New Zealand and Australia this month, and the growing desperation and clamor by Welsh fans for their team to pick off one of the southern hemisphere powers?
“I’m pleased with where we are at the moment,” Gatland says. “We’re looking at the long term, and looked at things differently this (month) ... We’ll be judged on our performances at the World Cup.”
Wales is ahead of schedule in World Cup terms, he adds. He views these tests as building blocks for the Six Nations which, in turn, will be a steppingstone for the World Cup. What Gatland is most excited about is having more time with the players next year, to prime them for a World Cup which he believes will define Welsh rugby, and by association him, more than outgoing and incoming tour losses to the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies.
There’s a grain of salt to be had with Gatland’s latest pre-match news conference, a forum he has used in the past for effect to wind up opposition players, charm opponents, and warn referees. Here, he appears to be keeping the focus of the fans’ pressure squarely on himself and off his team, in a buildup which has mainly been about him after his treatment of a BBC interviewer following the loss to the All Blacks last weekend, for asking a valid question about the pressure he’s under to beat the benchmark teams.
Pressure is constant and relative, Gatland adds. He feels it more internally, than from outside the team.
He’s responsible for raising the expectations of the Welsh players and fans, who seemed to be conditioned to failure when he took charge in December 2007. There followed three Six Nations crowns, as many as won in the 27 years between the 1970s heyday and his tenure, a best World Cup finish in 24 years in 2011, and a triumphant British and Irish Lions tour in 2013 featuring a majority of his Welsh players.
But those achievements have been blemished by continual losses to the big southern hemisphere teams. No other Six Nations side in Gatland’s time has played them as often, and failed so dismally.
There’s a difference between believing you can win, and knowing you can: The All Blacks know they can; the Welsh believe they can, but need to figure out how to finish off.
Can the Welsh knock off the Springboks on Saturday? Of course. But Wales’ kicking game for territory and pressure must vastly improve, the scrums need to hold up and the throw-ins be accurate, and the reserves offer more of an impact.
And finally, Wales must give its best to the final whistle.
Even after losing the likes of Schalk Burger and Bryan Habana, South Africa presents a formidable lineup, featuring world player of the year nominees Duane Vermuelen and Willie le Roux.
Coach Heyneke Meyer has called it a World Cup trial for his fringe players, against a team they could meet in the quarterfinals.
“This test is an opportunity for a lot of these youngsters and ones on the edge to show what they can do, and for the experienced players to step up,” Meyer says. “I know it’s going to be a tough game, but I’ve got confidence in these guys to show what they can do.”
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Jake Ball, Samson Lee, Scott Baldwin, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Emyr Phillips, Aaron Jarvis, Rhodri Jones, Luke Charteris, James King, Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (captain), Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach; Duane Vermeulen, Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje, Marcell Coetzee, Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Coenie Oosthuizen, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane, Julian Redelinghuys, Lood de Jager, Nizaam Carr, Francois Hougaard, Handre Pollard, Damian de Allende.