Preview: Wales v South Africa

Date published: November 28 2014

There’s been an awful lot of huffing and puffing in the press this week – both in Wales and South Africa – but not much of it is justified.

There’s been an awful lot of huffing and puffing in the press this week – both in Wales and South Africa – but not much of it is justified.

Let’s start in Wales. With 22 straight defeats against the SANZAR trio, the Welsh public and media are starting to grow tired of excuses. Against the Springboks on Saturday, they want results.

It’s funny how perceptions change. Less than a year ago Warren Gatland was being hailed for his role in securing a long-awaited Lions series win with a mostly-Welsh side. But he has spent much of this week defending himself – and his team – as their dismal record against the southern hemisphere giants has been rubbed in his face.

A quick reminder: Gatland heads into Saturday’s Test against South Africa at the Millennium Stadium looking to claim only his second win against the Boks, Wallabies or All Blacks in 27 attempts.

Events in Dublin haven’t helped as Irish wins over the South Africans and Australia have only served to highlight that poor record. In columns this week one former All Blacks coach wrote Wales are on a “downward spiral” while a former Lions player suggested Gatland’s time may be done.

Indeed, the theme of the week has revolved around pressure on Gatland’s job – whether it be real or media speculation – and the Kiwi has had to face some tough questions, which he insists he has no problem doing.

Gatland stood his ground at Thursday’s press conference and insisted Wales are on the right track – “ahead of schedule for the World Cup” were his words. What else was he going to say? Whatever he says, the numbers don’t look good and no one will take Wales seriously on a global level until they take a big scalp.

But does the fault lie with the coaching staff? In each of their past matches against the ‘big three’ Wales have been leading approaching the 70-minute mark, only to cough up the result when the chips were down.

Is that a sign of a team that is poorly coached? The structures and tactics were in place to put Wales in a winning position on all three occasions. How much responsibility must be laid at the feet of the players, who did not have the mental and physical fortitude to get over the finish line first?

Of course, the easiest way to make all this pressure instantly evaporate is to beat South Africa this weekend. And the home players will truly believe they can do it.

They’ll only need to look as far back as the most recent clash between these side to find inspiration. Ahead 17-0 at the end of the first quarter in Nelspruit and 30-17 up with 15 minutes left on the clock, the bitter memories of that one-point loss in June are still very fresh.

Yet, within that game lies the key difference between Saturday’s protagonists. If Wales have a nasty habit of fading, the Springboks have become masters of making the dying minutes count.

Since that miraculous recovery at Mbombela Stadium, they’ve gotten out of jail at the death against Argentina in Salta, scored three unanswered tries in the last ten minutes against Australia in Cape Town, slotted a 79th-minute winner to beat the All Blacks in Jo’burg, pulled clear on England having been level with 30 minutes to go and scored 14 unanswered point in the second half against Italy last week.

Yes, they lost in Dublin but let’s not forget that JP Pietersen scored in the last minute. This is a team that plays all 80 minutes.

With this weekend falling outside the official World Rugby November Test window, Japanese-based Pietersen won’t be in Cardiff. Nor will five other overseas-based squad members, which brings us to part two of our unjustified-media-whingeing theme.

There were a string of articles in the South African press on Wednesday and Thursday lamenting the fact that Wales had “unfairly” managed to keep hold of their French-based contingent while Heyneke Meyer’s team were force to make a few changes due to absentees.

Most of it was poorly-informed, scandal-mongering drivel, complete with outrageous conspiracy theories. This, taken from one of South Africa’s most popular rugby websites, took the cake:

“There has been no formal explanation forthcoming, leaving room for speculation that it is a deliberate ploy to get another Northern Hemisphere win over a Southern Hemisphere powerhouse ahead of next year’s World Cup.”

It would actually be funny if it wasn’t so utterly ridiculous.

Is it so hard to believe that not all players have the same contracts? A little bit of homework would have revealed that the Welsh players in question – some with the help of the WRU – have negotiated contracts that allow them to be released for international duty, something their South African counterparts simply didn’t do.

French clubs aren’t part of some Machiavellian northern hemisphere plot against South Africa, they’re simply enforcing the contracts signed by their employees.

It’s also a complete overreaction. Of the names missing, only Bryan Habana has been a regular starter recently while fellow wing Pietersen is the only other player who would have featured in the starting XV. For record, Wales will be without two key members of their front row, who have been called back to their clubs in England.

Back to the rugby.

For all the talk of pressure on Wales, a Springbok loss will have a far greater fallout. Defeat in the Welsh capital will mean that this tour is regarded as a failure. Above all, Meyer will be looking for a mature tactical performance from his team.

On paper, they are the stronger side, and he will want to build on their performance at Twickenham, were they overcame a mid-game hiccup to take control of the match at the most crucial period, unlike in Ireland where their lack of tactical flexibility was exposed

The hallmark of South Africa’s European tour has been their staunch defence with the total for line-breaks they’ve conceded in all three matches still yet to break into double figures.

Jamie Roberts (one of those sneaky Frenchies) will be Wales’ main strike weapon and the Boks have struggled to contain him before. Jan Serfontein, the green and gold tackling machine, is set for a busy afternoon.

But it’s up front where South Africa will impose themselves. The absence of hooker Richard Hibbard (who is back in Gloucester) is a huge blow considering that South Africa have The Bismarck ready to come steaming out of the blocks having started off the bench last week.

Marcell Coetzee has been in sublime form but he must match Sam Warburton at the breakdown battle in the early stages. As Meyer said on Wednesday, another Nelspruit-style comeback will not be possible on Welsh soil.

“We need to make sure our kicking strategy is strong and raise the tempo,” said one of the coaches in Cardiff this week. I’ll let you guess which one but the answer is irrelevant because both have been talking along very similar lines.

Both are promising a high-paced game yet Meyer’s style