Wales close out a turbulent year against the mighty Bokke, with the crushing heartbreak of defeat against the All Blacks still weighing heavy on the mind. Defeating any of the SANZAR nations has proved a serious task, and in South Africa they find an opponent every bit as challenging as New Zealand. Their one and only victory against the Springboks came in 1999, though they did of course run them painfully close in Nelspruit this summer, losing by only a single point.
Confounding matters for both sides is the fact that this match falls outside the offical test window, meaning several French and English-based players will miss out. For Wales it means that Paul James, Richard Hibbard, Bradley Davies, and James Hook are unavailable, though thankfully Racing Métro and Montpellier have allowed Jamie Roberts and Luke Charteris to stick around for another week. Injury has also ruled out Nicky Smith and George North.
Gethin Jenkins and Scott Baldwin step into the front row, with Emyr Phillips and Adrian Jarvis added to the bench as cover. Liam Williams is promoted to fill in for North on the wing, with Scott Williams called up along with Rhys Priestland, taking Hook’s squad spot. Interestingly Warren Gatland has opted for James King as back row reserve rather than Justin Tipuric, with King’s greater physical presence deemed preferrable to Tipuric’s guile.
The Springboks have bid adieu to France-based Gurthrö Steenkamp, Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana, and Johan Goosen, while it’s sayonara to J.P. Pietersen who is off to Japan. Thankfully they have plenty of reinforcements to stand in. Beast Mtawarira, Lood de Jager, Lwazi Mvovo, Cornal Hendricks and Damien de Allende take their places, while Willie le Roux starts at fullback and Bismarck du Plessis rotates with Adriaan Strauss.
Despite the numbers it’s not much of a hit to South Africa. Their key performers are all available, and even the inexperienced players have looked comfortable in their test experiences thus far. With the sudden and unexpected withdrawal of Jaque Fourie from World Cup contention, Jan Serfontein looks set to continue at no13, while a midfield spot has opened up with de Allende’s name earmarked as a top contender.
Of all the changes, the most significant has to be the loss of Hibbard for Wales, and possibly even more so the early season injury to Ken Owens, which has necessitated Baldwin’s start against the world’s best lineout. Baldwin’s throwing has been shaky at best, and Wales may have to get creative just to win their own ball. If the Springboks cause problems early in the air, they may be more inclined to take those 50/50 chances at the breakdown. That could spell real trouble for Wales, who depend heavily on quick ball to score points.
This will be a another full-on test for Wales, and it’s not hard to see them falling off considerably in the final quarter. South Africa had an easier time against Italy, and though their season has been longer, they should be the fresher of the two sides. Expect it to be close until around the hour mark, when the rush defense starts to slow and the half-gaps appear for the likes of le Roux to dance through. Take the Springboks by 10.
WALES vs SOUTH AFRICA
Saturday, November 29, 14:30 GMT, Cardiff
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)
Assistants: George Clancy (IRFU) & J.P. Doyle (RFU)
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)