Ahead of the upcoming three-Test series between South Africa and Wales, we pick out five storylines to follow over the next month.
The Springboks came out on top when these sides met in Cardiff during a November international last year while Wales will be looking to improve after an underwhelming Six Nations campaign.
Planet Rugby duly takes a look at five talking points ahead of the upcoming series.
Progress needed for Wayne Pivac
After a poor Six Nations campaign, in which they finished in fifth position and suffered a shock defeat to perennial wooden spoonists Italy, Wales supporters will not be getting their hopes up of securing a series victory against the world champions.
Under Pivac’s guidance, Wales have delivered a mixed bag of results since he took over the coaching reins from Warren Gatland after the 2019 World Cup. They struggled initially and lost seven out of 10 matches under his guidance in 2020 before bouncing back by winning the Six Nations in 2021, with a narrow defeat to France in their last game their only blemish during that tournament.
Wales did not build on that effort as they finished that year with three victories, three defeats and a draw before their disastrous 2022 Six Nations campaign where they only managed to beat Scotland.
Pivac will be feeling the pressure in South Africa as the Boks will have a spring in their step after their teams dominated the United Rugby Championship (URC). Much will depend on their performance in the opening Test in Pretoria on July 2 where players like tour captain Dan Biggar, Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi, George North, Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Liam Williams will have to be at their best if they want provide a genuine challenge to their hosts.
A long month on the cards for Wales
Wales head into this series as overwhelming underdogs and, if truth be told, just winning one out of the three Tests against the world champions would be seen as a massive positive for Pivac and his troops.
Apart from struggling in the international arena in recent months, the professional game in Wales is going through a dip as their regions battled during the recent URC campaign. All four regions failed to reach the quarter-finals with Ospreys just missing out by finishing ninth while Scarlets, Cardiff and Dragons were 10th, 14th and 15th respectively in the 16-team competition.
Matching a Springbok side in any game is usually difficult but doing it in South Africa is extra hard as the three-time World Cup winners seldom play poorly in their backyard. Adding to that, they received a boost when it was revealed earlier this week that Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted in the country, including wearing masks and public gatherings, which means all three internationals should be played in front of capacity crowds.
That means South Africa will have the support of large groups of their fanatical fans in attendance at these internationals which makes the task even more challenging for Pivac and his charges.
South Africa’s back-row selection
As usual, the Springboks head into this series blessed with a plethora of classy players in their pack, especially amongst the loose forwards where a mixture of experienced campaigners and up-and-coming youngsters have been named in head coach Jacques Nienaber’s 43-man squad.
The absence of veteran number eight Duane Vermeulen, who was omitted from the Springbok squad due to a knee injury, would, in years gone by, have been keenly felt but the URC showed that there is plenty of depth in South Africa’s back-row ranks.
Vermeulen’s partnership with inspirational captain Siya Kolisi and the impressive Pieter-Steph du Toit helped the Boks to World Cup glory in Japan in 2019 but that combination was broken up due to injuries to the former and the latter in 2021. Those injuries provided opportunities to players like Kwagga Smith, Jasper Wiese and Franco Mostert in the series victory over the British & Irish Lions and the Autumn internationals.
Those three players will once again be in the selection mix for the Wales series as they’ve all been called up along with Marcell Coetzee, Deon Fourie, Rynhardt Elstadt, Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw. Roos is the elephant in the room as he was the outstanding player during the URC and his excellent performances helped the Stormers to finish that tournament as champions.
His superb form has rightfully earned him a call-up to the broader squad and it remains to be seen if he’s done enough to sway Nienaber and the other Bok selectors about unleashing his impressive skill-set in the upcoming Tests.
Matching the Springboks’ physicality
It is no secret that the Springboks rely heavily on their physicality, so much so that their game-plan is based around bullying their opponent and grinding them down over the course of the game. It is a traditional strength of South Africa as the nation continues to produce incredibly physical players.
If Wales fail to match the physicality of the Springboks, Pivac’s men will return home empty handed. Once the gain line is compromised the likes of Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard and Lukhanyo Am bring the rest of the backline into play. With momentum, Willie le Roux will pick his moment to float into the first receiver position and dictate the attacking structure.
The key for Wales is to disrupt the set-piece, particularly at scrum time, or the Boks’ heavy pack will milk penalty after penalty and not allow any momentum shift in the game. Playing the Springboks is a physical battle, if a team does not win that aspect of the game more often than not they will come up short after 80 minutes.
Developing South Africa’s attack
Although the Boks’ forwards usually provide their backs with a solid platform, the world champions usually stick to a rigid game-plan with plenty of box-kicking and further kicks downfield aimed at pinning the opposition in their own half and forcing them into mistakes.
The Boks’ old guard is central to that approach with the likes of De Klerk, Pollard and Le Roux usually leading the way in the implementation of that game plan.
Although those players are expected to be leading the charge again, it’s also worth noting that Nienaber has recalled Warrick Gelant, who was at the heart of the Stormers’ attack during their triumphant United Rugby Championship campaign, as well as Andre Esterhuizen, whose attacking game has come on in leaps and bounds since moving to Harlequins in the Premiership.
Added to that are exciting newcomers like Roos and Kurt-Lee Arendse, who have both shown that they have the ability to unlock the tightest defences with their outstanding skill-sets during the URC. Along with other fine attacking players like Cheslin Kolbe, Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Cobus Reinach, Damian Willemse and Aphelele Fassi in their ranks, South Africa have the ability to run the best defences ragged.
Nienaber has hinted that they will change things up in terms of their game-plan – after reviewing their 2021 Test campaign – and it will be interesting to see what that entails.