Rhys Priestland: Wales can end the Springboks jinx
Fly-half is fit to face South Africa next week and believes his side can win at the ninth attempt
Rhys Priestland is something of an odd man out in the Wales squad, as quickly becomes apparent when the customary topics of conversation crop up at the team's headquarters in the Vale of Glamorgan.
The glory, glory Lions tour of Australia a few months ago, dominated by Welshman and their head coach Warren Gatland? Sorry, Priestland was recuperating from a second bout of Achilles tendon trouble and not selected.
How about sumptuous memories of the last time Wales played England: the 27-point thrashing that secured the Six Nations Championship title last March? Er, no, the Scarlets fly-half was busy enduring his first round of Achilles aggro – so his most recent encounter with the English was a self-confessed nightmare at Twickenham in 2012.
Okay, let's turn to next week's opponents for Wales in Cardiff: the world's second-ranked team, the Springboks. "People ask you your proudest moment in rugby and lining up for the anthems when we played South Africa in the 2011 World Cup was probably mine. I have real fond memories of that game," says Priestland.
Now, that's more like it – until you recall that Wales were beaten 17-16 that day in Wellington, New Zealand, with Priestland guilty of missing a decent dropped goal chance near the end.
Mind you, that match does at least bring Priestland – who looks likely to regain his Test place next Saturday from Dan Biggar, who played in the Six Nations, and Rhys Patchell, the youthful pick on the summer's non-Lions tour to Japan – on to common ground with his team-mates. None has ever beaten South Africa.
Indeed, Wales have downed the Boks just once in 26 attempts, when the Millennium Stadium was christened in June 1999. This dismal record inspires a mix of gallows humour, a new battle plan laid out by Gatland and another Lion rampant, Wales's captain Sam Warburton.
"I sort of knew Ireland were going to beat Australia," Priestland jokes of the pool result in the other half of the 2011 World Cup draw that made Wales's defeat to the Boks unexpectedly useful in seeing them through to a quarter-final against Ireland and on into the last four.
Priestland had stepped in as first choice at short notice before the tournament when Stephen Jones was injured, and he kept the hallowed Wales No 10 shirt throughout the 2012 Grand Slam. "They're a real physical team," Priestland says of South Africa. "It's going to be a big test for our squad but we've got some physical boys as well so I'm sure it will be quite a brutal encounter.
"Sam Warburton spoke this week about the 2003 England World Cup team and how they dominated the northern hemisphere but also took southern hemisphere scalps. We've come so close so many times. I've got full faith this squad is going to do it sooner rather than later but I've been thinking that for the last few years as well."
You can bracket Wales's eight successive losses to Australia – whom they meet in Cardiff on 30 November, with Argentina and Tonga in between – since 2009 in that statement, while the New Zealand tale is mostly All Black, with no Welsh win in the last 25 meetings.
Priestland uses humour to deflect the next obvious point: if the England team of Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and Co are Wales's new yardstick – they won 10 in a row against the southern Big Three up to and including 2003 – what happens next? "Ah, well, we'll start with one, I think, and see how we go from there," says Priestland.
It is perfectly understandable for the 26-year-old to be bright and cheery regarding his own form and fitness – a sparkling Scarlets win at Harlequins in the Heineken Cup three weeks ago grabbed English attention, and Gatland's backs coach Rob Howley said on Thursday: "Each of our 10s has a different skill set and Rhys has started the season well."
Last year Priestland played for Wales but recalls how his "body was in bits, with strapping to both knees, both shoulders, both elbows, my back hurting – it was a real drag getting through games and training."
He ruptured his Achilles in December and it gave way again just before the Scarlets' Pro 12 semi-final in Ulster in May, leading to a long dark night of the soul in Belfast, when Priestland locked himself in a hotel room as his club-mates celebrated their last match of the season.
As for those southern hemisphere scalps, Wales anticipate Springbok bombs raining down on their back three, and Jean de Villiers running hard at their fly-half. Mike Phillips is expected to start at scrum-half having had no more than what Priestland calls "mickey-taking" in the camp over his sacking by Bayonne.
"The one thing you can guarantee is we'll keep working as hard as we can," says Priestland – but while he says Wales at their best can be "a match for anyone" he is not predicting a run of 10 big wins just yet.
Eight in a woe: Wales have lost every one since 2004
Jun 2004 South Africa 53-18 Wales - Pretoria
Nov 2004 Wales 36-38 South Africa - Millennium Stadium
Nov 2005 Wales 16-33 South Africa - Millennium Stadium
Nov 2007 Wales 12-34 South Africa - Millennium Stadium
Jun 2008 South Africa 43-17 Wales - Bloemfontein
Jun 2008 South Africa 37-21 Wales - Pretoria
Nov 2008 Wales 15-20 South Africa - Millennium Stadium
Jun 2010 Wales 31-34 South Africa - Millennium Stadium
Nov 2010 Wales 25-29 South Africa - Millennium Stadium
Sep 2011 South Africa 17-16 Wales - Wellington
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