No-hope Wales in no-lose situation

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online

reports from Johannesburg

Playing against the world champions in their first game since winning the World Cup could hardly be described as the easiest of starts to a new era, but Welsh rugby has no option other than to measure itself against the very best at Ellis Park this afternoon.

The cynics back home might be expecting the worst, especially as the Springboks are keen to prove they can attack with the best of them as well as defend better than anyone else, yet there is a surprisingly upbeat mood in the Welsh camp.

The caretaker coach, Alex Evans, has always been a realist and he knows deep down that his side has little or no chance of securing a first win over South Africa. Victory, however, is not that important for Wales today.

Evans's not so hidden agenda is aimed at getting the Welsh players to realise how good or bad they really are; how much more work they need to do to compete with the best and how important it is to play with pride and commitment.

The Australian-born coach, the red-hot favourite to become the first Director of National Squads in Wales on his return, wants what every Welsh rugby fan has been craving this year: a highly motivated and competitive team. He has promised to deliver at least that and his young side has pledged not to let him down. So where does that leave a side fielding three new caps, four players who are 21 or younger and 10 men with seven or less caps? At least on the same field as the world champions - and in with a chance of salvaging some pride as long as they do not freeze.

It is the classic no-lose situation for Wales, a heavy defeat merely being another heavy defeat, while the Springboks will be expected to run riot to celebrate their World Cup triumph in front of a 50,000-plus crowd.

The Springboks were hurt by suggestions that their World Cup success, especially the extra-time final victory over the All Blacks, was built on defensive rather than attacking qualities, and they are extremely keen to put the record straight as they launch a run of 14 tests in the next 12 months against Wales.

"Our first function this year was to win the World Cup. The good rugby comes after that," James Small, the Springbok winger, said. "The game against Wales is the starting point for us and we intend to play with greater continuity and to use a bit more of the French style."

That sounds ominous for Wales, but with a solid scrum and Derwyn Jones to win line-out ball for them they should at least be able to put Francois Pienaar and his men under some form of constructive pressure.

"We will be very competitive and we will play good rugby. The only question is for how long," Evans, the Welsh coach, said. "We will just have to go for it. It's all about matching their tempo and maintaining it for 80 minutes.

"The good thing about this trip is that when we go home we will have been measured and we will know exactly where we are, and what we need to do to make the next step.

"I'm prepared to make harsh judgements about players on the strength of this trip. We have got some very capable players in this squad but there has been no formula set for them to follow so that they can compete in the test arena.

"They are uneducated in many ways. I'm not saying that every player isn't ready to participate at test level. But while Welsh players may be tactically capable of playing at international level, physically they are off the pace."

Just how far off the pace will become obvious today.

SOUTH AFRICA: A Joubert (Natal); J Small (Natal), H Le Roux (Transvaal), J Mulde (Transvaal), J Olivier (Northern Transvaal); J Stransky (Western Province), J van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); B Swart (Transvaal), J Dalton (Transvaal), M Hurter (Northern Tansvaal), M Andrews (Natal), K Wiese (Transvaal), F Pienaar (Transvaal, capt), G Teichmann (Natal), R Kruger ( Northern Transvaal). Replacements: V Cilliers (Western Province), C Scholtz (Transvaal), J Roux (Transvaal), C Rossoux (Transvaal), R Kempson (Natal), R Straeuli (Transvaal).

WALES: J Thomas (Llanelli); I Evans (Llanelli), G Jones (Bridgend), G Thomas (Bridgend), S Hill (Cardiff); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), A Moore (Cardiff); C Loader (Swansea), J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), J Davies (Neath), P Arnold (Swansea), D Jones (Cardiff), A Gibbs (Newbridge), H Taylor (Cardiff), M Bennett (Cardiff). Replacements: M Taylor (Swansea), A Williams (Swansea), P John (Pontypridd), A Moore (Swansea), L Mustoe (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea).

Referee: J Dume (France).