Both Wales and South Africa are set to put out vastly-altered sides when they meet at Cardiff this weekend after injuries and red-tape have kept out many of the match’s biggest names.
South African Coach Pieter de Villiers – whose decision to rest some of his big names (Habana, Spies, Burger, Smith) ahead of the upcoming summer internationals had already come under some scrutiny – has no doubt had the worst of the luck.
De Villiers was forced this week was to fly in the resting Victor Matfield and team mate Zane Kirchner from South Africa after Premier Rugby refused to release Bath’s Butch James, and man-mountain Andries Bekker’s withdrew injured, forcing them out of the starting line-up.
And while at first glance these changes and the disruption they have caused in the South African set up will be music to Welsh fans’ ears, to call this disrupted, non first-choice starting line-up a weakened South African side would be an oversimplification.
The team is still brimming with talent and experience, and Wales will have to box clever if they hope to stand any chance against South Africa’s remaining threats.
South Africa’s backline may be inexperienced, and putting them under pressure should be Wales’ main objective throughout the game. Francois Steyn’s presence at full back however means a Welsh tactical kicking game may be all but out of the question – see exhibit A below.
Warren Gatland’s mantra on the road to the World Cup has been to build up Wales’ physicality, an area South Africa have made their own over the past few years, and even with their famously ferocious back row resting, South Africa have very few weaknesses in the contact area.
Wales will also be without many of their first choices for the tie. Gatland has decided to rest elder statesmen Shane and Martyn Williams for the duration of the tour, and in the last two weeks both Gethin Jenkins and Andy Powell have been lost to injury.
Much like South Africa though, Wales are not too significantly weakened by these changes. Wales’ front row Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Paul James should be up to the task in the scrum, with Jones and Rees having proved their mettle against South Africa for the Lions, and all three already being familiar with BJ Botha and CJ Van de Linde from the Magners league.
The surprise return of James Hook, who has put off much needed shoulder surgery to play the Springboks, will bolster the Welsh chances as Hook is a player who consistently causes Southern Hemisphere teams problems and whose centre partner will be Jamie Roberts, still one of rugby’s greatest attacking assets.
Young guns Tom Prydie and Sam Warburton have already proven that they are ready for the international stage and will relish the chance to test themselves against uncapped opposite numbers.
Undoubtedly Wales have the ability to win, but with South Africa’s strength in depth they’ll need to climb a mountain first to do so.
By Sam Francis