If you’re looking for ultimate challenges in rugby, there are many which vie for the top of the charts – beating the All Blacks, winning a Lions series, and watching a Test-match in Dublin without ending up with a Guinness-induced hangover. And winning a test a match in South Africa against the Springboks is right up there with those seemingly impossible tasks. Wales go into the match of the back of a dodgy Six Nations, but if you’re going to test the backbone of a side, Durban is not a bad place to start.
It doesn’t seem too long ago that South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer was about as popular as a bout of flatulence in an elevator amongst Springbok supporters, with a limited gameplan appearing to rely almost exclusively on a strong defence and an exceptional kick-chase. It was reasonably effective, but pretty dire to watch and they never really got close to big scalp – the All Blacks. But last season saw a real evolution in their attacking game, one which takes the traditional South African strength – bruisingly physical and abnormally large men all over the pitch – and pushes it to another level.
Their side for Saturday’s encounter is absolutely stuffed with behemoths who specialise in making yards when they have no right to – think Bismarck Du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen and Jan Serfontein – but there is a subtlety now which is not often picked up. Throughout last season’s tournament we kept seeing the big men in the middle and wider channels, where they can run into more space and look to release deft offloads to one of the deadly finishers who are invariably lurking on their shoulder. The shift of focusing the attack into the wider spaces has really spurred on their offensive threat, and Wales will be well aware of the menace that the hosts present.
If there is one area where South Africa are looking a little fragile though, it’s in the backline, where youngster Serfontein and regular-winger JP Pietersen are forced into a centre partnership due to injury and ‘mysterious withdrawals’ (in the case of Francois Steyn). That being said, there is still plenty of individual talent and all of these guys have been turning heads in Super Rugby – the question is whether or not they can play with the cohesion required to pose a threat in a Test Match.
The gameplan I just described for South Africa above may sound rather familiar to Welsh fans – and that’s because it is very similar to the ‘Gatland-ball’ that the men in red have been playing over the last 4 seasons, normally with plenty of success. And it’s easy to see why that is the gameplan of choice for the Kiwi coach – with a backline consisting solely of giants with legs the size of oak-trees, the wider channels are a natural target for a power game.
It’s an odd scenario building up to this Test, however, in that the vast majority of Gatland’s men are fit and healthy – but with three very notable and crucial exceptions, in the forms of Richard Hibbard, Sam Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny; a trio of Lions. Arguably Ken Owens has been pressing for a start for a while, but the losses of Warburton and Halfpenny would hurt any side. The man slotting into the seven shirt, Aaron Shingler, is a very decent player but against Francois Louw he will need to have the game of his life to help Wales win the battle in the loose, whilst Liam Williams has shown he has talent but he will need to demonstrate that he can wield that against the top teams;,against whom he is relatively unproven.
But there are reasons to be positive, despite the middling performances in the Six Nations. With Adam Jones winning his 100th cap, and the tried and tested pairing of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in the middle, there is power and experience in abundance and, with George North on the pitch, plenty of X-Factor too (although admittedly, at the time of writing, it’s apparently not clear if he’ll be fit to start). Wales will go into this game as underdogs, but that never phases them – particularly when there’s a threat of being beaten at their own game.
Head to Head: Jan Serfontein vs Jamie Roberts
Those of you with keen memories will remember that this is the same Jan Serfontein who was named IRB Junior Player of the Year in 2012, due mostly to the fact that he steamrollered anyone in front of him in a manner that reminded me starkly of the unfairly-prematurely-developed kid at under 13s; it really was man against boys. He’s taken over the spot of Jean De Villiers in the skipper’s absence, but he’ll be called upon to do the same job as the heir apparent to the 12 shirt – and that job is about hard running, smart lines, and getting over the gainline. Of course, he is up against a certain Dr Roberts, who – when he is on form – is the world’s best at filling that particular role. As mentioned above, with Wales and South Africa playing similar games which depend on getting over the gainline through the middle off first phase, the bruising battle between these two will be critical to attacking fluency.
Wales are – for me – quickly taking over France’s mantle of being the real unknown quantity of international rugby. They were woeful at times during the Six Nations, but with the quality they have scattered over the pitch, you can’t be surprised if they end up blowing people away. And with Dan Biggar slotting into the 10 jersey, you do feel that they’ll be able to bring a stronger structure and territorial game which will suit Gatland’s plan down to the ground. But can they beat South Africa in their own backyard? I think that’s a step too far. If the Springboks pick up where they left off in last year’s Rugby Championship then the men in red will be in for a long day at the office – the hosts pushed a fully firing All Blacks side all the way in the game of the season. With a new found attacking potency, I have the Springboks down as being one of the main players for the World Cup, and I suspect that we’ll see that proven on Saturday. South Africa by 10.
By Mike Cooper (@RuckedOver)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images