TO put into perspective Wales’ chances of beating South Africa in today’s World Cup quarterfinal, it is worth nothing that in 29 matches under Warren Gatland against the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses, Wales have won just twice.
They beat Australia in 2008, but have lost 11 in a row to the Wallabies since then, have never beaten the All Blacks and their second win was against the Boks in November last year, when they edged home 12-6.
In 30 matches between Wales and South Africa, the Boks have lost just twice, won 27 times, and there was a draw in 1970. The only other oss to the men from the Welsh Valleys was in 1999 when Gary Teichmann’s team lost in a game to mark the opening of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It did not help their cause that a change room talk by then CEO Rian Oberholzer, which was primarily about there being too many white faces in the team, took the fizz out of the players, and they looked dispirited and deflated in losing 29-9.
Sixteen years later Wales are talking up their chances of beating the Boks because they have ten players starting that beat the Boks a year ago, six of them in the pack. The problem with that is that only five of the Boks that played that game are on starting duty this evening: Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen and Willie le Roux.
The Boks were depleted that day because the game was played outside the international window and overseas-based players were not picked, including Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Schalk Burger and Francois Louw. They also suffered injuries during the game, notably the horrible knee injury to captain Jean de Villiers, who was fine form at that point in his career.
The Boks now have a completely new backine, apart from Le Roux. The significant changes are at halfback where Handre Pollard and Fourie du Preez have replaced the Sharks pair of Patrick Lambie and Cobus Reinach.
Du Preez has made a huge difference and Meyer has at last settled on a first-choice flyhalf after juggling Lambie and Pollard for the last year.
In fact the Bok team has a had number of important changes since their loss to Japan. The three oldest players from that day, De Villiers, Matfield and Jannie du Plessis, have given way to Damian de Allende, Lood de Jager and Frans Malherbe.
Interestingly, the average of the Springbok team is now 27 years 210 days, and is the second youngest South African World Cup team since the 2007 World Cup final, with only the line-up in the big USA win two weeks ago younger, by seven days.
You would have to say the Boks now have the ideal blend of youthful swagger and sage experience. The squad left South Africa with a perception among the public that the squad was too old but the balance is now spot on.
A pint of interest is that Heyneke Meyer has picked a bench with plenty of experience. He is convinced that the game will be won in the last 20 minutes by his bench and he has said he did not so much want impact players by wise heads on the pitch when the match reaches its pulsating climax.
Meyer says that it is going to be game with few tries, an out-and-out arm wrestle, little flamboyance and plenty of blood and guts.
“The pressure is going to be extraordinary,” Meyer said. ‘But I have often said that under pressure coal turns into diamonds. If I look at this team, there is plenty of character, plenty of diamonds, and some coals that will diamonds by the end of this match.”
Meyer predicted that Pollard is a case in point.
“He is getting better and better (since coming in for Lambie after the loss to Japan),” Meyer said. “The more I watch him and see how he conducts himself in training and away from rugby, the more I am convinced he is a future Springbok captain. Mark my words, he is going to shine bright today and lead the way.”
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez (capt), 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Jannie du Plessis, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Wales – 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Tom Francis, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 James Hook.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Mike Greenaway in London
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