There is no such thing as a ‘nothing’ Test. Saturday’s Bok confrontation with Wales in Cardiff has significance.
The Springboks, in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, relished every chance they had to play – and beat – England. Even when they thrashed an England side in South Africa missing the core of their regulars the Boks spoke up the meaning of constantly winning against blokes wearing the English white jersey.
Wales have only beaten the Boks once in 100 years, but they’ve come bloody close on a couple of occasions, and the 20-15 Bok win in Cardiff in 2008 could very easily have been a Welsh victory.
Both teams are missing regulars, but it is by no means the best of Wales against a second string Bok team. It is the best available Welsh team and it isn’t that far off the best Bok team, especially now that Fourie du Preez is out for the year.
The Bok tight five is the best that currently can be selected and while I’d always select Schalk Burger and Juan Smith to start at next year’s World Cup, Francois Louw and Dewald Potgieter were the form South African loose-forwards in the Super 14. Joe van Niekerk has been outstanding at flank and No 8 for Toulon for the last two years and there isn’t much to choose between an in-form Van Niekerk and a firing Pierre Spies.
At halfback one of Ricky Januarie or Ruan Pienaar will start for the Boks this season and how they perform against Wales will have a huge bearing on the Boks’ season. The Springboks cannot play the same quality kicking game without Du Preez and his unavailability is a leveller because it forces the Boks to adjust their attack.
Butch James should have played and the intention was always to move Pienaar to halfback in the second half and James to flyhalf. Hypocrisy and greed, in terms of Player Welfare and remuneration, means James has to watch from the stands. It is an opportunity lost.
Jaque Fourie is the best outside centre in South Africa, Francois Steyn is the best selection at fullback and Juan de Jongh has been on the rise all season and would have been in an extended Bok squad, regardless of Jean de Villiers’s availability and that of Bulls centre Wynand Olivier.
Gio Aplon and Francois Hougaard were the most exciting of the wingers in the competition and are fighting it out for one place with JP Pietersen and Lionel Mapoe injured. So when you consider a match 22 of who is fit to play for the Boks in the next two months, the players missing for Cardiff are Bakkies Botha, Burger, Spies, Morne Steyn, Bryan Habana and one of De Villiers or Olivier at inside centre.
This team isn’t as second rate as some have made out, and 10 of those starting in Cardiff would always start.
The preparation for the Boks has not been easy because of the chaos around James’s selection and withdrawal three times in three days. What is important in the context of the Test is the presence of John Smit and Victor Matfield, the two most experienced tight forwards currently playing international rugby.
Wales, since Warren Gatland became coach, have closed the gap on the Boks in every Test, and there is a belief within the Welsh squad that Saturday will be the occasion they actually close it completely and win.
I would not bet my house against it happening. Victory for the Boks will show this side can win without the halfback kicking game of Du Preez and (Morne) Steyn, which as a combination has no equal in rugby.
Defeat will give every one of the chasing pack belief that there is a vulnerability to the Boks when Du Preez isn’t wearing No 9.
I don’t buy the dismissive attitude some have to this Test. I think it is massively significant in terms of the World Cup and because of the nature of the build-up trying to pick a winner would be the equal of picking a lotto number.
You’ll know within the first five minutes who is going to come out on top, but on a Friday afternoon trying to call this one would be like taking a leak in the dark. You may think you know which way it is going, but there can’t be any certainty.
If the Boks win this Test it has to be acknowledged what a good win it is. If they lose, there has to be a similar acknowledgement that the defeat will have an impact on their season and especially their pysche with respect to Wales at next year’s World Cup.