Wales vs South Africa: We are actually ahead of schedule, says Warren Gatland

The Welsh have capitulated late on in their previous two autumn internationals against Australia and New Zealand

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Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, has dismissed suggestions the pressure is mounting on him as Wales seek a first scalp for six years against the southern hemisphere big three on Saturday and has called on his critics to judge him on the World Cup alone.

Wales have shown promise this autumn, pushing Australia and New Zealand close before capitulating in the last 10 minutes of both matches.

But it is now 26 games since they beat any of New Zealand, Australia or Saturday’s opposition, South Africa, prompting Gatland’s post-match television interviewer last Saturday to query whether he was under pressure.

Gatland appeared to take umbrage with the BBC questioning and there were reports earlier in the week that Wales Rugby Union had lodged an official complaint. But Wales’s Kiwi coach insisted that no complaint had been made and that “I’ve never minded people asking hard questions”.

As for the suggestion of mounting pressure, he said: “You are always under pressure in sport. As a group, it’s more about the pressure you put on yourselves as much as anything rather than the external pressure.

“With regard to the autumn, it isn’t a competition. For us it’s about using the autumn to play against the best teams in the world, who have come off really strong campaigns, to prepare for the Six Nations and for the World Cup.

Liam-Williams.jpg
Liam Williams, who gave away a late penalty try against South Africa in Nelspruit in June, returns to the starting line-up in place of the injured George North (Getty Images)

“I stressed at the start of the campaign we were looking at the long term. Our whole focus is on making sure we get out of that pool at the World Cup. The time we have together will be about making sure we do qualify and make the quarter-finals. I think we are ahead of schedule.”

How, though, Wales need a victory against the Springboks, who overcame a 30-17 deficit in the second Test in the summer to beat the touring Welsh team by a solitary point. That defeat was arguably the toughest for Wales to take, a penalty try the tipping point after Liam Williams was adjudged to have shoulder-barged Cornal Hendricks into touch. In a twist of fate, Williams is back in the starting line-up in Cardiff, with George North having been ruled out after suffering a nasty blow to the head against the All Blacks.

Fly-half Dan Biggar, who continues his impressive half-back pairing with Rhys Webb, admitted that Williams had been devastated at the time. But he added: “It’s gone now. It’s about looking forward to Saturday and making sure he does all the right things. What you get with Liam is 100 per cent commitment and someone who is willing to die for the cause, and that’s the type of attitude we’re going to need on Saturday.”

Due to club commitments, loose-head prop Paul James is replaced by Gethin Jenkins and Scott Baldwin comes at hooker for Richard Hibbard.

Jenkins was dismissive of suggestions Gatland might be under pressure. “I don’t think anything’s changed,” he said. “We’ve got a settled game plan in terms of the way we play.” He and Gatland were both at a loss to explain Wales’ inability to close out key games. “We keep saying to ourselves that we know we are good enough,” Gatland said, “and we know we’ve put ourselves into positions to win these games and how close they’ve been.

“There’s no one more disappointed than myself or the team that we haven’t been able to finish them off when we’ve been in front and had a chance to win these games. We know how close we’ve been. We understand it and we are desperate to try to make sure that we do finish it off.”

Wales team v South Africa L Halfpenny (Toulon); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Clermont Auvergne), J Roberts (Racing Métro), L Williams (Scarlets); D Biggar (Ospreys), R Webb (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), S Baldwin (Ospreys), S Lee (Scarlets); J Ball (Scarlets), A W Jones (Ospreys); D Lydiate (unattached), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, captain), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons). Replacements E Phillips (Scarlets), A Jarvis (Ospreys), R Jones (Scarlets), L Charteris (Racing Métro), J King (Ospreys), M Phillips (Racing Métro), R Priestland (Scarlets), S Williams (Scarlets).

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