Cape Town – The enforced addition of vastly experienced Leigh Halfpenny to the Wales team for Sunday’s World Cup semi-final crunch against South Africa in Yokohama brings with it some potential new headaches for the Springboks.
While bow-legged marauder Liam Williams missing out through injury in the fullback spot is being widely considered a significant blow for the Welsh cause, summoning Halfpenny from the relative cold gives them this, far from irrelevant comfort: a second dead-eye place-kicker.
Simply put, between Halfpenny and current flyhalf Dan Biggar, you could hardly wish for a better alliance anywhere when it comes to proven proficiency off the tee.
Already assured, with the call-up of nearly 31-year-old Halfpenny, is plentiful “BMT” to accompany his place-kicking (and often enough those of the tactical kind) mastery.
You would expect that from a player sporting 88 Test caps … and who debuted, then as a wing, some 11 years ago against the very Boks at the Millennium Stadium; SA prevailed 20-15.
After making the more routine switch to fullback for Wales around 2011, Halfpenny remained largely first choice there until the end of last year and was just as often their admirably high-percentage primary goal-kicker.
It is only more recently that Williams has become the priority pick by Warren Gatland in the last line of defence, leaving tee-based duties more comprehensively in the hands of pivot Biggar.
The flyhalf duly landed four out of four shots at the posts in last weekend’s nail-biting quarter-final against France (two conversions, two penalties), as if to confirm his own readiness in accuracy terms for the more critical last-four phase of the event.
Halfpenny, meanwhile, has only had one start at the World Cup to this point: in pool play against unfancied Uruguay on October 13 when Wales won 35-13 in Kumamoto, though he converted all four orthodox Welsh tries (they also earned a penalty try, nowadays not requiring a kick at goal).
So having both Biggar and Halfpenny on hand for cracks at the posts against the Boks – especially bearing in mind that high-stakes games like this one frequently aren’t determined by an avalanche of tries – is a bonus for Wales.
Certainly the Boks have seldom been involved in World Cup semis (of their four in total) where tries have come dime-a-dozen: a notable case in point is the tense 1999 tussle with Australia at Twickenham, where the Wallabies nosed it out 27-21 after extra time, and every single point to both protagonists was registered via the boot.
Rassie Erasmus’s charges, of course, will only have one recognised place-kicker on the park at the outset on Sunday, in the form of flyhalf Handre Pollard.
That is generally a source of satisfaction all of its own, given Pollard’s reliability by reputation and the way he thrives on pressure situations: remember the perfectly-struck conversion from out wide right at the death in Wellington earlier this season to crucially secure the 16-16 draw with the All Blacks?
Yet at RWC 2019, Pollard has fallen quite regularly short thus far of his normal standards when it comes to taking aim at the uprights.
His smacking of a post with a straightforward effort in the first quarter of the Pool B opener against the world champions, when the Boks were already 3-0 to the good and building a promising platform, gave the All Blacks a bit of a let-off which they quickly exploited with a crucial salvo of points of their own in the eventual 13-23 Bok reverse.
He also faded a tad after a flawless first 50 minutes or so of place-kicking against Italy (the 49-3 win), and then missed three efforts in the quarter-final (from seven goes at the posts) triumph over Japan by a score of 26-3.
That is all a bit below usual Pollard terrain levels in strike-rate terms, so maybe he will save his best for the most intense period of the tournament.
It could be extremely important against Wales, not only because of the twin Biggar-Halfpenny factor for them, but also due to the Boks having such a limited backline bench.
In the unpalatable event that Pollard were to get injured on Sunday, only veteran utility factor Frans Steyn is available, off the splinters, as a feasible place-kicking replacement as well. (Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk could be deployed in a truly emergency-related situation.)
Steyn is an unpredictable character in that department, often renowned for putting over 55m goals with outrageous effortlessness, but strangely not being quite so razor-sharp from shorter ranges.
Is it advantage Wales at tee time?
That may be something the Boks will have to work around, if they can ... and consistently good field position would be a good start.
15 Willie le Roux, 14 S'bu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Franco Mostert, 21 Francois Louw, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Frans Steyn
15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones
Substitutes: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Aaron Shingler, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Rhys Patchell, 23 Owen Watkin
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