Rugby Union: South Africa threaten to spoil Welsh homecoming

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GRAHAM HENRY'S Wales, as well as the three-quarters completed Millennium Stadium, will go on trial this afternoon, with the pounds 126m stadium likely to get the better result.

Henry's brave new team might have run the Springboks close at Wembley in November, and won their last five Tests, but the game they are calling the homecoming international looks like being a game too far. Playing out of season against the world champions is not what Henry had hoped for after the rigours of his first Five Nations' Championship and a testing examination across a three-week period in Argentina.

But still, through the grimace of having to ask his players to go that extra mile, Henry can smile in the knowledge that the captain, Robert Howley, will lead them out today in the world's greatest rugby stadium.

Two years in exile during which time the national side has suffered unprecedented failure and unbounded joy has, to say the least, been an experience for all of those involved.

Now the boys are back in town and poised to prove that pounds 46m of Millennium Commission cash has been well spent.

"It is an exceptional stadium, the best in the world," said Henry, who would rather his players spent today on the beach than face the world champions. "It is a reward for those people who had the guts to go ahead with such a plan. We have been in the stadium this week and though it is not finished I am absolutely thrilled with the facility. It will inspire the players and hopefully prove that the wait has been very much worthwhile."

The doubting Thomases, many of them within the Welsh game, have all had their say in the two years since the first stones were laid. They questioned its position, its sense and moreover whether it would be ready in time for the World Cup opener against Argentina on 1 October.

That target will be achieved, like today's target of having a stadium capable of holding 27,500 people. The sun has been shining all week and perhaps that is an omen. The success of beating France and England, before becoming the first tourists to win a series 2-0 in Argentina, has worked wonders for public morale.

Suddenly, and more-or-less overnight when you consider that Henry led Wales to defeat in both of their opening championship games against Scotland and Ireland, Welsh rugby is back in credit.

An average team, as Henry described them recently, Wales are starting to make waves. Not that that will bother South Africa, who are bang in the middle of another potentially explosive season. Gary Teichmann, their esteemed leader, suggested this week that Wales had caught them cold at Wembley in November.

But after beating Italy by 101 points on Saturday, South Africa have a side that looks in better shape than it has done for several seasons.

WALES: S Howarth (Sale); G Thomas (Cardiff), M Taylor (Swansea), A Bateman (Northampton), D James (Pontypridd); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); P Rogers (Newport), G Jenkins (Swansea), D Young (Cardiff), C Quinnell (Cardiff), C Wyatt (Llanelli), C Charvis (Swansea), B Sinkinson (Neath), S Quinnell (Llanelli). Replacements: L Davies (Cardiff), S Jones (Llanelli), D Llewellyn (Ebbw Vale), M Voyle (Llanelli), B Evans (Swansea), A Lewis (Cardiff), J Humphreys (Cardiff).

SOUTH AFRICA: P Montgomery (Western Province); S Terblanche (Natal Sharks), P Muller (Natal Sharks), J Mulder (Lions), P Rossow (Western Province); B Van Straaten (Western Province), W Swanepoel (Western Province); R Kempson (Western Province), N Drotske (Free State Cheetahs), C Visagie (Western Province), S Boome (Western Province), K Otto (Blue Bulls), C Krige (Western Province), R Erasmus (Lions), G Teichmann (Natal Sharks, capt). Replacements: B Paulse (Western Province), G Du Toit (Griquas) D Von Hoesslin (Griquas), A Vos (Lions), A Venter (Free State Cheetahs), O Le Roux (Natal Sharks), C Marais (Western Province).

Referee: Ed Morrison (England)

TV: BBC Wales and S4C live (5pm)