Rugby Union: Curious Welsh step closer to an answer: Cardiff sight first on new breed of Springbok

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The Independent Online
HERE is a curiosity of the new rugby world: that the Springboks have been playing almost continuously - not long ago against England - since their post-boycott reintroduction, yet we still seem to know so little about them.

Specifically, this ignorance has applied to Cardiff as they have prepared for South Africa's first match in Wales for a quarter of a century at Cardiff Arms Park this afternoon. 'The biggest problem for us is that apart from a few clips of Currie Cup matches on TV we don't know much about their players,' Mike Hall, the Cardiff captain and Wales centre, said. 'We don't know what to expect.'

When you think about the 57 players who have represented South Africa in 19 Tests in two breakneck years, not to mention three coaches and various management and disciplinary upheavals, it is scarcely surprising that the South Africans themselves - never mind the rest of us - have sometimes wondered in what direction they are headed.

They now know the baleful effect of isolation, there being no reason to imagine that forward bludgeon without threequarter rapier would have been any less efficacious for South Africa than had been traditional. The defeats that followed by New Zealand, Australia, France and England were a rude awakening.

The realisation was swift, the implementation slow. The metamorphosis from forward rugby to running rugby has made South Africa's domestic game consistently thrilling, but at international level a similar success has proved more elusive than any of the Springboks threequarters on this tour.

South Africa's record of seven Test wins since 1992 is not simply an unflattering comparison with the 10 defeats; to South Africans who remember something much, much better it is agony.

The matches against Scotland on 19 November and Wales a week later will be the last Tests South Africa play before next year's World Cup and if the chance of a rest will be a fine thing, the tour, too, should be as therapeutic as the recent two games when the Springboks scored a dozen tries against Argentina.

Since their return from isolation, South Africa have deliberately set themselves up against the most demanding opposition - and have suffered accordingly. Now is the time for something that should prove somewhat less so.

These first couple of weeks, however, would be liable to burden even the most experienced of tourists. Kitch Christie, who was appointed coach when Ian McIntosh was sacked after the losing tour of New Zealand, recognised this when he noted that the first five games, against the leading Welsh clubs and Wales A, would be the most difficult of the tour.

Even though the Tests will still lie ahead, the tour will then take a distinctly easier turn and it is a great frustration for Welshmen aware that Wales have never beaten South Africa that the way the Scottish leg has been inserted is bound to dissipate whatever softening-up the clubs may have achieved.

The process begins with Cardiff, the Welsh cup-holders, whose battle honours include a 17-0 victory over the first Springboks in 1907, an unthinkable margin for those days, and an 11-9 defeat in 1951 which was deemed so unfortunate that the Springboks presented Cardiff with the springbok's head normally reserved for the first team to beat them on tour.

Cardiff, incidentally, would have preferred the more intimate setting of their club ground, with its 14,000 capacity, to the National Ground next door, which holds 52,000 but may not even get 20,000 for today's match. As ever, it is all to do with money: higher ticket prices for one thing, but more particularly a live television transmission on BBC Wales, not to mention the rugby league Test on BBC1 and Bath v Leicester on Sky.

Why be a spectator when you can be a couch potato?

Cardiff: C John; S Ford, M Hall (capt), C Laity, N Walker; A Davies, A Moore; M Griffiths, J Humphreys, L Mustoe, S Roy, D Jones, H Taylor, E Lewis, O Williams.

SOUTH AFRICA: A Joubert (Natal); C Williams (Western Province), B Venter (Orange Free State), P Muller (Natal), C Badenhorst (Orange Free State); J Stransky (Western Province), J van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); B Swart, U Schmidt, I Hattingh (Transvaal), M Andrews (Natal), H Hattingh (Northern Transvaal), R Kruger (Northern Transvaal), G Teichmann (Natal), R Straeuli (Transvaal, capt).

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).