A waft of predictability hangs over the Millennium Stadium today. Once more Wales find themselves up against southern hemisphere opposition, once more promising to deliver a performance for 80 minutes. If the script goes according to past form, it will be another tight, pulsating encounter with Warren Gatland’s side once again coming up short in the dying minutes, paving the way for a déjà vu post-mortem.
If Test matches lasted just 68 minutes, then Wales would have been victorious in their last three encounters against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – but they crumbled in the dying minutes of each and every game.
The aftermath of the last match, against the All Blacks a week ago, was ugly. The former British & Irish Lions hooker Shane Byrne was among those leading the calls for Gatland to be replaced, while former All Blacks coach John Mitchell claimed that “Wales are on a downward spiral”.
Such an observation is misplaced but, with the World Cup only 10 months away, Wales have just one last chance this weekend to beat one of the big three.
In theory, South Africa are ripe for the picking. Coach Heyneke Meyer is without the services of his overseas players in the back three, JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana and Johan Goosen, who have returned to club rugby with the White Knights, Toulon and Racing Métro respectively.
In addition, there will be tired Springbok bodies in the wake of a packed international schedule, during which they have beaten New Zealand and England in recent weeks.
Much rests for Wales on the Ospreys half-back partnership of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, who combined to such good effect for most of the All Blacks game.
For Biggar and his team-mates the goal for the weekend is obvious: “A good performance will, hopefully, lead to a good result but we’d take a scrappy win on Saturday. We have to keep the scoreboard ticking over and make them crack under pressure.
“There won’t by anything too flash at the weekend. We’ll be looking to do the simple things right and close the game out.”
For a side that prides itself on its defence, it is telling that Wales have conceded 30 points or more in four of their last five Tests, the one exception being that drab game against Fiji two weekends ago.
Their line-out has also been a weakness – they have the second worst success rate in line-outs of any major international side at just 84 per cent – and it was the driving line-out that the Springboks used to such good effect in the summer.
Wales’ players and management had warned about the All Blacks’ kicking threat last week and it was the aerial bombardment that proved Wales’ eventual downfall, an area Gatland has focused on in the build-up to the encounter with the Springboks.
“It’s not the ball-in-hand stuff that is hurting us at the moment,” said Gatland. “It’s when teams are putting the ball in the air and putting the ball behind us. We’ve got to work on that and be better prepared at nullifying those threats.
“We are expecting South Africa to play a pretty structured game against us and to kick a lot, so we’ve got to be able to deal with that pressure in terms of the opposition kicking strategy.”
Historically, Wales have not boasted a good record against South Africa, winning just once in their 29 encounters since the first in 1906. That sole win came in the inaugural match at the Millennium Stadium in 1999, when two of the current Welsh coaching staff, Neil Jenkins and Rob Howley, were among the players on the pitch.
Like the Springboks, they are marginally weakened – George North is unavailable after taking a blow to his head against the All Blacks, while Paul James and Richard Hibbard have returned to club duty with Bath and Gloucester.
For Gatland, the desire is to end the autumn on a high, with a morale-boasting win to take into next year’s World Cup, and to shake off some of the negative headlines – in particular, the spat with Gloucester over Hibbard two weekends ago and a supposed row with the BBC over Gatland’s post-All Blacks questioning.Reuse content