Gatland's champions must peak for Springbok summit

Click to follow

It happened almost exactly 10 years ago and it still represents the darkest day in Welsh rugby history. The 96-13 hammering Wales suffered in Pretoria in 1998 is an ugly stain on their pride.

If today's Welsh side, weakened by injury, looks like capitulating in similar style this afternoon its coach, Warren Gatland, will no doubt bring out the Sir Alex Ferguson-esque hairdryer treatment in the dressing room at half-time. Gatland, a no-nonsense Kiwi who cheerfully inflicts physical pain on his players in training, simply does not do 90-point hidings and to him the fact that Wales are without key players like the openside flanker Martin Williams, the first-choice scrum-halves Dwayne Peel and Michael Phillips and the Grand Slam full-back Lee Byrne, matters not a jot.

"This is very much a starting point for us; no one should think we're anywhere near the finished product," he said. "We're trying to put things in place, getting the guys to understand the type of game we want to play. The results in the Six Nations were a real bonus for us; I didn't expect a Grand Slam so soon."

There is an earthy type of honesty about Gatland and his lieutenant, the defence coach Shaun Edwards. These are men without frills. If one player cannot provide what they want, another will be tried.

"They have bought into everything we have tried to implement," said Gatland. "They have responded well.

"We went back to some simple old fashioned values like hard work and a lot of honesty. We wanted to bring back respect for the jersey. That was our goal for the season: wear the jersey with pride and give a performance."

Gatland's side may have to fall back on their pride fairly quickly today. True, this is a much changed Springbok XV, with only five players remaining from the side which overcame England to win the World Cup final in Paris in November. Yet South African rugby's depth of talent is such that it recalls the old Welsh joke from the glory days of the 1970s – whistle down the mine and another pair of locks come up; shout outside the fly-half factory and out pops new genius at No 10.

One Welsh player certainly up for the fight is the Llanelli Scarlets wing Mark Jones, particularly given his duel with Bryan Habana, the leading wing in world rugby. "In modern-day sport, you want to come up against the best in the world," said Jones. "Habana's certainly up there. He's had a fantastic season and is on top of his game, so it's a huge challenge."

While Wales lack key men, South Africa can afford an insurance policy of keeping players as potent as Victor Matfield, Percy Montgomery and Ruan Pienaar on the bench. This afternoon, Gatland's hair-dryer treatment might be required early.