Four weeks ago, on that not-so-fond day in Brighton, many South African fans would’ve been cracking jokes (or possibly crying) at the fact that the Springboks’ chances at third-time Rugby World Cup glory wasn’t looking so good. The loss to Japan was a massive wake-up call for Heyneke Meyer and his troops, but despite the speedbump, the Springboks are preparing for the must-win knockout stage of the tournament as they go head-to-head with Wales on Saturday at Twickenham.
Wales, on the other hand, have had a rather stellar tournament so far. The challenge against the Wallabies was always going to be a tough one for the Welsh, but their emphatic win over England is easily one of the standout moments of the tournament so far. Eliminating the hosts on their own hallowed ground was something that not many teams would’ve been able to do, and the Welsh will be in full confidence thinking they can grab another big-name scalp on their way to the semi-finals.
That said, the sentiment from the Welsh camp all week has been doom and gloom – talking themselves down in front of the hungry media – a clear attempt to set the Springboks into a sense of complacency. Yes, Wales are rather depleted following some serious injuries ahead of and during the tournament, but if there’s one thing the Welsh have always had, it’s depth. The versatility of their players is also an admired trait and they won’t be noticing the positional gaps too much when they take to the field on Saturday. This is a spirited team who are more than the sum of their parts.
The Springboks seem to have built in confidence too. The loss to Japan was probably the best thing that could’ve happened the entire squad. It reminded Meyer that the Boks must stick to their strengths at set-pieces and play the counter-attacking running game when opportunities arrive. The Japanese exposed the Springboks’ frailties when it came to the sometimes one-dimensional South African attack. The team has come a long way since those days and they need to remain on the path of evolution in their game.
The selection for Saturday’s match also speaks volumes about Meyer’s faith in the young stars and future of the Springboks. The consistency of appearances for Handrè Pollard and the young midfield of Damian De Allende and Jesse Kriel has helped build momentum in the backline. The appointment of Fourie du Preez as captain has also been a stroke of genius – as Du Preez is able to be the strong and silent leader who doesn’t ruffle too many feathers, but can bring the tactical mind to the game. Schalk Burger is there to be the talking talisman.
Saturday’s clash won’t see many tries run in. This is the the do-or-die stage of the tournament where things slow down and the team that plays the best tactical and defensive game tends to dominate play. The Springboks are superior in these areas, with Fourie du Preez orchestrating the pace of the game and Willie le Roux handling the aerial assault which is sure to come from the Welsh, the Springboks look to be in good stead if they stick to the game plan and don’t venture into the dark void of one-off forward runners from the ruck.
The encounter is sure to be an entertaining affair though, with the flyhalf battle of Pollard and Biggar to be a focus of everyone’s eyes. It’s also a massive moment for Wales, who, if they win, have the opportunity to take on France or the All Blacks in the semi-final, which would make the tournament their most successful in Rugby World Cup history since making the quarters in 1987.
Teams for Saturday:
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 (c), 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.