Defence and discipline will be in the spotlight when the Springboks go up against the Kiwis of the northern hemisphere in Cardiff, writes JON CARDINELLI.
There was a time when the Sprigboks enjoyed a physical and mental hold on Wales. South Africa won all but two of the Tests played between 1906 and June 2014.
‘Wales don’t have the belief to beat the Boks,’ one coach told me in late 2013. I subsequently attended the match between the two nations at the Millennium Stadium. Sure enough, the contest played out as predicted, with the Springboks outlasting their Welsh counterparts.
Back then, there was a feeling that the Springboks shouldn’t – and couldn’t – lose to Wales. Those were also the days when the Warren Gatland-coached side couldn’t buy a win against the three southern hemisphere giants.
Fast forward to the present. Gatland has most recently steered his team to a big win over the Wallabies. Wales will head into their next match against the Springboks as favourites, and it’s the visitors rather than the hosts who will have a point to prove regarding their game management and mental fortitude.
The Springboks went down 12-6 to Wales in Cardiff four years ago. The South Africans made mistake after mistake, and Leigh Halfpenny made them pay with his accurate goal-kicking boot. Cornal Hendricks was infamously yellow-carded for a challenge in the air, but overall the Boks’ discipline was poor and they were punished for not giving the Welsh due respect.
Everyone expected the Springboks to walk over Wales in their 2015 World Cup quarter-final. In the end, it took a miracle offload by Duane Vermeulen close to the tryline – with two or three defenders hanging on to the No 8’s back – to set up Fourie du Preez for the game-clinching try.
That remains the one and only victory the Boks have scored over Wales in the past four years. Wales have won the last three Tests against South Africa in Cardiff, and came out on top in the most recent game in Washington DC this June.
I had the chance to sit down and chat to Rassie Erasmus about various issues at the start of the 2018 season. His remarks about Wales were particularly interesting and somewhat prophetic given his side went on to lose the match in the USA 22-20.
‘Wales embrace a New Zealand style of play,’ he said. ‘What Ireland showed in the Six Nations, however, is that if you can strangle them, you can beat them well.’
That Bok side, which was comprised of second- and third-choice players given the fixture’s proximity to the opening Test of the series against England in Johannesburg, failed to achieve its objective. The players struggled in the wet conditions and the new combinations did not gel to any telling degree.
South Africa will have another opportunity to put the plan into practice, though, when they face off against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. This group has been together – working closely with Erasmus, defence coach Jacques Nienaber and a largely new management team – for six months. They have good reason to believe that they can shut down Wales and emerge with an important win.
The Boks rattled the All Blacks in Wellington and again in Pretoria with their abrasive defence. They dominated the gainline battle when fronting England in London, and were very quick off the line against Scotland in Edinburgh.
We’ve seen several individuals making momentum-shifting hits, and we’ve witnessed how influential that system can be when it is implemented accurately.
On the other hand, the Boks have been guilty of too many lapses. Individual errors cost them dearly in the gutting loss to the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld, and their defence was cut on several occasions by England at Twickenham. Last week at Murrayfield, the defence in the wider channels left a lot to be desired.
As Erasmus has suggested, Wales will present a New Zealand-style challenge to the Bok defence. It also wouldn’t surprise to see Wales kicking on the Bok back three, given that the tactic proved so effective when the sides met in Cardiff last year.
Former Wales winger Shane Williams has predicted that the dangerous duo of Jonathan Davies and George North will start for the Dragons on Saturday. Williams believes that Wales may gain the upper hand via their superior attack and back division.
Only a consistent defensive performance by the Boks will prove Williams, and many others who feel that this is Wales’ game to lose, wrong.
Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images