Gatland looks and learns as Wales face unwanted test

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Gethin Jenkins has not undertaken the captain's duties since he led an under-21 team at Pontypridd – an event that can hardly be described as recent, given that the Lions loose-head turned 27 last weekend – and it is perfectly possible that he will not perform the role again as long as he lives and breathes. The Wales team picked to face the new world champions, South Africa, at the Millennium Stadium this afternoon is neither old nor new. It is a one-off, pure and simple, for things are about to change radically indeed.

Another member of the front-row fraternity, the former All Black hooker Warren Gatland, embarks on a four-year stint as the head coach of Wales the moment the dust settles on this ill-timed and ill-conceived fixture, and he will have ideas of his own on all kinds of subjects, not least the identity of a long-term skipper. Jenkins could play a blinder against a distinctly useful Springbok pack and still not float the New Zealander's boat. It is a strange situation, to be sure.

There again, it is a strange game. While the Boks have travelled in some strength – nine of the men who started the World Cup final against England in Paris last month remain in place, including the entire three-quarter line – the half-dozen exceptions are major losses.

The full-back Percy Montgomery, the scrum-half Fourie du Preez and the No 8 Danie Rossouw are injured; the great prop Os du Randt has shuffled off his sporting coil; the outside-half Butch James has burned his boats by joining Bath; the lock Victor Matfield, bound for a spell on the Riviera, would rather be with his family. It seems this particular match is not the be all and end all.

Those with an interest in promoting the final contest of a ridiculously long international season – accountants, mostly – would have you believe that this fandango counts for something. They should try pulling the other one. It takes more than a live television broadcast and a tin pot bearing the name of Prince Someone-or-Other to fool a rugby public growing increasingly weary of a Test programme so bloated that the Boks cannot even sell out their home games with the All Blacks. Internationals are supposed to be premium products prized for their rarity. These days, Tests are about as rare as flies in summer.

Still, it's going ahead and that's that. What to make of it? The Boks expect to win, and with good reason. They have played 17 games already this year and suffered only three defeats, two of them with line-ups considerably weaker than the one they will field today. Not to put too fine a point on it, 2007 has been a year of wonders for them – a sporting annus mirabilis of the kind that occurs once in several generations.

They have the potential to score heavily – until England restricted them to five penalty goals in the World Cup final, they had passed the 30-point mark in every tournament match – and when they are forced to man the barricades, they do it with meaning. Without James, their midfield defence might be a little more vulnerable to a running outside-half as ghostly as James Hook, but with Schalk Burger and the magnificent Juan Smith in the back row, who cares? The two flankers know how to keep opponents under lock and key, and if the new cap at No 8, Ryan Kankowski, is as handy as the Boks say he is, Wales will have their work cut out to cross the line.

Nigel Davies, the former Llanelli centre whose caretaker spell as head coach will end the same day it begins, has not enjoyed the best of fortune on the injury front. Shane Williams, the clever little finisher from Ospreys, is unfit; so too are Lee Byrne and Jamie Robinson, two individuals who offer something different with ball in hand. As a consequence, Davies has three straight-line runners in his back line – Tom Shanklin, Sonny Parker, Gavin Henson – and a debutant at the back, Morgan Stoddart. If the Boks woke up sweating last night, they must have fallen asleep in a sauna.

"We've had our hand forced a little, but the result is a pretty exciting back division I'm sure is capable of making South Africa stand up and take notice," Davies said yesterday.

"We have a magnificent opportunity to make a statement that will reverberate around world rugby. We need to start getting a winning mentality into the group, and while facing the champions is a tough prospect, this Wales team is good enough to do something special."

Bold words – the kind of words that have a habit of biting Wales coaches on their rear ends. Davies can afford to say what he likes, though. Come next weekend, the Red Dragonhood will be someone else's problem.

Millennium Stadium Teams


15 M Stoddart (Llanelli Scarlets)

14 M Jones (Scarlets)

13 S Parker (Ospreys)

12 G Henson (Ospreys)

11 T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues)

10 J Hook (Ospreys)

9 D Peel (Scarlets)

1 G Jenkins (Blues, c)

2 H Bennett (Ospreys)

3 R Thomas (N-G Dragons)

4 I Evans (Ospreys)

5 A-W Jones (Ospreys)

6 C Charvis (Dragons)

7 R Sowden-Taylor (Blues)

8 J Thomas (Ospreys)

Replacements: 16 T R Thomas (Blues); 17 D Jones (Ospreys); 18 L Charteris (Dragons); 19 A Popham (Scarlets); 20 M Phillips (Ospreys); 21 C Sweeney (Dragons); 22 T James (Blues)

South Africa

15 R Pienaar (Kwazulu-Natal)

14 J P Pietersen (Natal)

13 J Fourie (Golden Lions)

12 F Steyn (Natal)

11 B Habana (Blue Bulls)

10 A Pretorius (Lions)

9 E Januarie (Lions)

1 C J Van der Linde (Free State)

2 J Smit (Clermont Auvergne, c)

3 J Du Plessis (Free State)

4 J Botha (Blue Bulls)

5 J Muller (Natal)

6 S Burger (Western Province)

7 J Smith (Free State)

8 R Kankowski (Natal)

Replacements: 16 B Du Plessis (Natal); 17 H Van der Merwe (Natal); 18 A Van den Berg (Natal); 19 H Lobberts (Blue Bulls); 20 W Olivier (Blue Bulls); 21 A Ndungane (Blue Bulls); 22 C Jantjes (Lions)

Referee: C White (england)

Kick-off: 2.45pm (Tv bbc1 )