Rugby union: Wales must stifle Springboks' zeal

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The Independent Online
HARD-BITTEN New Zealand rugby coaches like Graham Henry are not noted for their squeamishness; they eat supper during the Psycho shower scene and consider The Exorcist to be a better religious sit-com than Father Ted. But there is one piece of film footage that Henry flatly refuses to watch. It is of a massacre so depressingly bloody that it makes the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan look like family entertainment.

We speak, of course, of the video of last June's one-off international between South Africa and Wales in Pretoria, during which the Springboks amassed an unprecedented 96 points and missed hitting the three-figure mark only because of a late outbreak of butterfingered incompetence.

"Of course I haven't seen it," said Wales' new coach this week. "I don't think the events of that day are a good thing to bring up. The whole business is a complete negative. What conceivable help would watching that tape be to me in my preparations for today's game?"

Well, considering today's game is against those self-same South Africans - 14 of the Springboks who set the Loftus Versfeld annihilation in motion are on duty at Wembley this afternoon - it would surely have thrown up the odd pointer as to how the world champions might best be checked, if not subdued. "We don't need a piece of film to tell us that a 96-13 defeat is totally unacceptable," snarled the former Auckland and New Zealand A coach as he readied himself for a daunting first Test.

His comment begged another question: namely, the precise measure of defeat that would be acceptable, given that Welsh rugby has reached such a low ebb that a variety of shellfish would now be clearly visible on the once hallowed turf of Cardiff Arms Park had the construction gangs not dug it up to start work on the Millennium Stadium. Henry was in no mood to name a figure but if Rob Howley's team were offered a 15-point losing margin before kick-off, they would almost certainly throw a party.

South Africa who open their bid for a first Grand Slam of Britain and Ireland in almost 40 years on the back of a Tri-Nations clean sweep, are currently the best in the business. "They're a totally different proposition from the side that faced the Lions last year - they're well selected for a start - and I would also say that they have a distinct edge over the team that won the World Cup in 1995," Henry said. "Their defence is something else; in Henry Honiball they have a unique outside-half, someone who plays more physically than any stand-off in history."

For all the rumbustious talents of the Quinnell brothers and Martyn Williams' speed to the breakdown, the Welsh do not possess the weight of forward muscle required to force scores through sustained bouts of physical intensity. Sadly, Allan Bateman's absence from the outside centre position and Henry's apparent lack of interest in the flashing genius of Arwel Thomas also deprives the Dragons of their most obvious attacking lock-pickers. Neil Jenkins will have to deliver a faultless 80 minutes with the boot, just to keep his countrymen at the races.

Pontypridd's favourite son has kicked South Africa into an early grave before, of course,during last year's Lions tour. Since then, though, one or two other elements of his rugby portfolio have failed to survive serious examination, most notably when Thomas Castaignede, his French opposite number, left Jenkins standing in Wales' last appearance at Wembley in April.

Given that only three Welshmen - Dafydd James, Mark Taylor and Colin Charvis - survive from last summer's under-baked and over-exposed Test line-up, the Welsh should avoid a painful dose of Loftus Revisited today. But these Boks have a missionary zeal about them. A world record run of Test victories is within their grasp, as well as a precious Slam. It will be astonishing if those possibilities are not still alive when the crowds disappear back down Wembley Way this evening.

Henry's task, page 22

WALES v SOUTH AFRICA

at Wembley Stadium

S Howarth. Sale 15 P Montgomery W Province

G Thomas Cardiff 14 S Terblanche Boland

M Taylor Swansea 13 A Snyman Blue Bulls

S Gibbs Swansea 12 F Smith Blue Bulls

D James Pontypridd 11 P Rossouw W Province

N Jenkins Pontypridd 10 H Honiball Natal

R Howley Cardiff, capt 9 J van de Westhuizen Blue Bulls

A Lewis Cardiff 1 R Kempson Natal J Humphreys Cardiff 2 J Dalton Golden Lions

C Anthony Swansea 3 A Garvey Natal

C Quinnell Richmond 4 K Otto Blue Bulls

C Wyatt Llanelli 5 M Andrews Natal

C Charvis Swansea 6 J Erasmus Free State

M Williams Pontypridd 7 A Venter Free State

S Quinnell Llanelli 8 G Teichmann Natal, capt

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia) Kick-off: 3.00pm (BBC1, 2.15)

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