South Africa remind me of a children’s cartoon character asking if things can ever get any worse before comically getting hit by an anvil. Another year another loss to a team ranked outside of the top 10, a pattern that has become alarming to Springbok fans back home. Their tumble out of the top 4 provides more worries for the World Cup draw next year, with the potential for a group containing New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina now a possibility. Fingers have been pointed, the players have blamed Coetzee, Coetzee has blamed the players, and the whole project is a mess.
Their opponents on Saturday are in similar dire straits, having scraped past Argentina before almost succumbing to defeat against Japan. When the head coach has to reassure fans that they haven’t lost the dressing room it is usually a bad sign (unless you are France, when it is called ‘entering tournament mode’). However, Wales have little time to reflect on the Japan match, and must turn their focus to South Africa. Wales’ record against the Springboks is frankly terrible. They have only beaten them twice in the past 100 years, although the most recent of those wins came two years ago. With the South Africans in arguably their weakest state ever, and with Wales keen avenge the quarter final loss at last year’s World Cup, this promises to be an intriguing battle in Cardiff.
In team news, Wales will welcome back the starting XV that beat Argentina two weeks ago. Dan Biggar, Ross Moriarty, Gethin Jenkins and Justin Tipuric will all be in the starting lineup barring an injury before the game. Wales will also be relieved that number 8 – Taulupe Faletau will be available for selection, although whether or not he starts will remain to be seen. However, captain Sam Warburton will be unavailable due to injury, allowing Dan Lydiate to come in at 6. The Springboks have rolled the dice for this one. Van Resenburg replaces De Allende, Habana is dropped in favour of Ulengo, while Cassiam rounds off the list of players earning their first cap, with final debutant Jean-Luc du Preez taking a spot on the bench. Faf se Klerk joins Elton Jantjies as the Springbok halfback pairing, and fullback Johan Goosen regains his place. In the scrum, Lourens Adriaanse replaces Vincent Koch at tight head.
Tactically, expect this game to be a particularly bruising encounter. Both these teams are renowned for their physicality, and with both desperate for a win, they should seek to play to their strengths. The Springboks seem to have differing opinions on this, as they have played a kicking game under Coetzee throughout this tour, despite their best success coming when they run with the ball in hand. Wales were susceptible to this style of play last weekend, so it will be interesting to see if Coetzee changes his approach (probably not, but we can dream). Both teams will look to dominate the set piece. Whoever can dominate the scrum will have the upper hand, both psychologically and in terms of having a good platform from which to base their attacks. Expect the driving maul- a tactic that has been extremely successful for both teams in the past- to be featured prominently.
Wales need to continue to focus on their defense and decision-making, Japan’s first try came from an errant pass, and they cannot gift South Africa points like that. They also need to work on keeping possession, a problem that has plagued Wales this autumn. The try that so nearly carried Japan to another famous win was the result of a turnover from a Welsh break. Finally, they cannot afford to go down to 14 men against South Africa (although I’ll cynically grant that the offence that lead to Williams’ yellow card was necessary to avoid a try being scored).
Wales will know that they have the ability to beat South Africa and put a gloss over what has largely been a disappointing year. It has almost got to the point for Springbok fans that a loss might be preferable, in that it may prompt either Coetzee’s replacement or resignation. A win for South Africa would offer a little respite for Coetzee, but surely he must realize that the writing is on the wall if he cannot reverse this teams fortunes quickly.