Preview: Wales vs Springboks

Keo.co.za analyses the key match-ups and picks a winner at the Millennium Stadium.

The Welsh media are talking their boys up, and it’s true that the Dragons won’t get a better chance to beat the Springboks. Peter de Villiers has picked a side that has only two established combinations, and if that’s to be considered a weakness, the South Africans are certainly vulnerable. The majority of their first-choice players are enjoying a week off before the greater contest against France on 12 June, and De Villiers has asked the ‘dirt-trackers’ (plus a few stalwarts) to dispose of Wales.

That’s the perception, and if you’re going to skim the surface, you may be inclined to take perception for reality. Delve deeper, and it’s clear that while this team lacks game time as a unit, they are a team not lacking for individual quality. If they gel this Saturday, they’ll beat Wales comfortably. If they don’t, they still have the individuals to see off a spirited but limited Welsh challenge.

Let’s get back to perceptions. Last year, the Boks’ first-choice front-row was Beast Mtawarrira, Bismarck du Plessis and John Smit. In 2010, the Beast’s eligibility problems and Du Plessis’s injury has fractured that partnership, but Smit’s move back to hooker won’t be as temporary as some might believe. With Smit packing down between CJ van der Linde and BJ Botha, and the Super 14-winning combination of Danie Rossouw and Victor Matfield supplying the necessary grunt in the second row, the Boks will field one of their best scrummaging combinations.

Wales coach Warren Gatland has opted to bench Alun-Wyn Jones in favour of the Cardiff Blues combo of Deiniol Jones and Bradley Davies. Expect Gatland to pay for his error, as Matfield pinches opposition ball and secures the South African feed to earn terrific momentum from the lineout. The Boks still have the powerful carriers out wide, but they will also look to exercise their strength at the maul. With Smit resuming his lineout-partnership with Matfield, a partnership that proved so successful at the World Cup, you wouldn’t expect a lack of synergy.

The Boks’ proficiency in the set pieces will be matched at the breakdown, even though this is the first time Francois Louw, Dewald Potgieter and Joe van Niekerk have played together. The area where the Welsh may outclass the Boks is at halfback and in the centres, although the Boks’ forward dominance should limit the potency of the home backline.

Ricky Januarie’s physicality should keep Mike Phillips in check around the fringes, but he needs to inject some speed into his attacking game. Januarie was in disappointing form during the Super 14, and it wasn’t surprising to see him riding the bench for the majority of the campaign. If he’s to prove he’s more than rugby’s version of Benni McCarthy, he needs to get to the rucks much quicker in Cardiff.

With his forwards losing at the collisions, Stephen Jones will struggle to put his exemplary boot to good use. Ruan Pienaar produced a solid performance the last time the Boks visited Cardiff in 2008, but will be asked to vary his game on this occasion. On attack, he’ll make good use of Juan de Jongh’s carrying ability, but the Boks could certainly have done with Butch James’s bulk and defensive nous.

Primarily, James was to be tasked with keeping the powerful Jamie Roberts at bay. The British & Irish Lions centre had an impressive tour to South Africa last year, and remains the dangerman. However, De Jongh and Jaque Fourie formed a good partnership in the Super 14, playing for the tournament’s best defensive side in the Stormers. Again, if the Bok forwards manage to dominate, the backline’s job will be made easier. If De Jongh isn’t ready for the step up to Test rugby, he’s unlikely to be exposed in this clash.

James Hook and Lee Byrne add some flair to this Welsh backline, but the hosts’ lack the quality of a true gamebreaker like Shane Williams to really trouble the Bok defence. They shouldn’t look to break down the Boks through a kicking game either, as Frans Steyn will send those kicks back with interest. It’s also a risk considering the counter-attacking ability of debutant Gio Aplon. Wales were the second-worst defensive unit in the Six Nations, and I suspect they won’t want to create unnecessary challenges for themselves.

The key for Wales is to rattle this Bok side early and get that fantastic crowd behind them. Although they have no match for Matfield, the legendary lock will be tired after a full Super Rugby season. Several other South Africans will be feeling the effects of a Super 14 final and could tire in the closing stages.

For the Boks, they need to weather a typical Welsh assault in the early stages and avoid taking risks. If they’re ahead by more than seven at half-time, they should twist the knife in the second period. It won’t be the clinical rugby we’ve come to expect from the world champs, but the result should be the same.

Prediction: Boks by 10

Springboks - 15 Frans Steyn, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Juan de Jongh, 11 Odwa Ndungane, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Ricky Januarie, 8 Joe van Niekerk, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 BJ Botha, 2 John Smit (c), 1 CJ van der Linde.
Subs: Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Alistair Hargreaves, 19 Ryan Kankowski, 20 Meyer Bosman, 21 Zane Kirchner, 22 Bjorn Basson.

Wales – 15 Lee Byrne; 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 James Hook, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Tom Prydie; 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips; 8 Ryan Jones (c), 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Jonathan Thomas, 5 Deiniol Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Paul James.
Subs: 16 Huw Bennett, 17 John Yapp, 18 Alun Wyn Jones, 19 Rob McCusker, 20 Richie Rees, 21 Dan Biggar, 22 Andrew Bishop.

By Jon Cardinelli