At the beginning of the season you would hardly have pre-dicted that next Saturday's match between South Africa and Wales would be a battle between the world champions and the Six Nations Grand Slam winners. But that is the measure of what a surprising nine months it has been in rugby, and the shocks might not yet be over.
The opposing coaches in Bloemfontein on Saturday don't have much in common apart from the fact that they are both unbeaten. But while Warren Gatland has a famous record of five wins out of five, Peter de Villiers has yet to send out his new charges for their first outing under his control. That will apply its own pressure, and if Wales are going to cause a surprise their best opportunitywill be to catch the World Cup holders cold.
Gatland confesses that he doesn't quite know where Wales are as a team. Obviouslythey are a damned sight better than they were six months ago, but it is only by leaving their Six Nations environment and tackling a team of South Africa's might that they will get a true perspective of their worth.
And that is what Gatland and his players are anxious to discover. During the three weeks they have spent in preparation they have worked hard to get rid of any lingering Six Nations euphoria and fix their focus on the harder challenges ahead.
The tremendous confidence and self-belief that brought them the Grand Slam is difficult to sustain when you arrive in a country where you have never won in 100 years, and where you lost 96-13 just 10 years ago.
Those sorts of statistics have not been helpful to the Welsh preparations, but I have to admire Gatland's honesty. He hasn't disguised the size of the task, and he has made it clear that this is the level his side have to compete at if they want to regard themselves as a top rugby team.
Neither side have been helped by injuries. Most of the Welsh casualties have been in key areas in the backs, where Mike Phillips, Gavin Henson and Lee Byrne are missing.
Of these, I think they will miss Henson most. The dyn-amic Phillips leaves a gap at scrum-half, but I believeGareth Cooper will make the most of his chance. And Byrne's absence at full-back creates a very interesting contest between the highly promising youngsters Jamie Roberts and Morgan Stoddart.
Henson, however, is not easily replaced. His strength during the Six Nations was that he was so direct in his running, and he is a great distributor of the ball.
It would be fatal to run across the field against South Africa. They will murder you if you play laterally. I imagine that Sonny Parker will play inside-centre. Although neither he nor Tom Shanklin has Henson's distribution skills, both are strong runners and will have to break the gain-line frequently.
One of the main Welsh strengths under Gatland has been the front five, and because they've only lost one member, the hooker Huw Bennett, this unit should go well.
The loss of Martyn Williams at openside flanker is a blow, though. Jonathan Thomas's conversion from blindside will work if the pack are able to hold their own, but he could be under pressure with the loose ball. Still, with the captain, Ryan Jones, being joined by Gareth Delve, it is still going to be a powerful back row.
There has been some criticism made of the talented outside-half James Hook for not realising his full potential, and I agree that he doesn't impose himself on the game. He does some great things, but he must learn to boss play and be more vocal. This would be a good time to start.
South Africa have their injury problems, but they have enough strength in depth to remain clear favourites on their home soil. Wales, meanwhile, are a work in progress and it remains to be seen how far that progress has taken them.
Squad and itinerary
Backs: Morgan Stoddart, Andrew Bishop, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams, Tom James, Mark Jones, Sonny Parker, Tom Shanklin, Stephen Jones, James Hook, Warren Fury, Gareth Cooper.
Forwards: Ryan Jones (capt), Dafydd Jones, Jonathan Thomas, Gareth Delve, Bradley Davies,Ian Evans, Alun-Wyn Jones,Ian Gough, Duncan Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Rhys Thomas, Adam Jones, Matthew Rees, Richard Hibbard.
Fixtures: Sat 7 June: First Test, Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein; Sat 14 June: Second Test, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria.Reuse content