Wales try to defy history v Springboks

2015-10-16 09:04
Sam Warburton (Gallo)

London - As much as Sam Warburton dismisses its relevance, the history between Wales and South Africa is too lopsided to ignore.

Two wins over the Springboks in 109 years is not a rivalry.

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The second win was just last November; 12-6, all penalties, in Cardiff. Can Wales take much from that into their Rugby World Cup quarterfinal with South Africa on Saturday?

First, it has prevented the build-up this week from becoming an inquisition on Wales' miserable streak against the Springboks, All Blacks, and Wallabies.

Until that win in Cardiff, Wales had lost 22 straight to the big three, choked in too many of them, and coach Warren Gatland was starting to get a little cranky. Alas, a new streak, of one, has begun following Wales' inability to score in the second half against an Australian down to 13 men in pool play last weekend.

The second benefit was that 10 of those Wales starters, especially seven of the forwards, have survived to line up in the quarterfinal and know what it takes to beat South Africa. They made the mental jump, although the physical one is unforgettable, too. Warburton admits the body is in a pretty bad state after playing the Springboks.

The doubt about Wales' ability to repeat is that South Africa's team is barely recognizable from November. Only five starters have survived from that line-up — these Springboks are bigger, faster and younger.

But there are doubts about them, too. Their record is 4-4 this season, their worst since 2011, the last Rugby World Cup year. They haven't beaten anyone ranked in the top six for nearly a year. The nadir was Japan, a humiliation which also galvanized them. The Springboks rebounded to win their pool by dismissing Samoa, Scotland, and the United States, effectively padding their try-scoring statistics.

This week, the Springboks have only had to worry about which players to leave out, unlike the battered Welsh, who have worried about who to bring in.

In the end, both made minimal changes.

South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer was able to extend the promotion of youth, including prop Frans Malherbe, lock Lood de Jager, flyhalf Handre Pollard, and centre Jesse Kriel. Meyer made an impassioned plea of support for his younger players, by trying to inspire them with similar youthful triumphs by Boris Becker, Mike Tyson, and Alexander the Great.

 If those three had anything in common, it was fearless ambition to rule the world.

 To that end, Wales and South Africa present major hurdles for each other on Saturday.

Wales has done remarkably well despite a crippling amount of injuries, while South Africa has regained some swagger but without appearing convincing or being truly tested. It makes for another even-looking contest between two settled teams with formidable packs.

South Africa's backline has an advantage of longevity, but Wales' bits-and-bobs backline and under-rated defence have conceded only two tries, and few penalties.

Both teams are preparing to grind each other down and force penalties.

"When you get to this level, there are not too many weaknesses in teams, so it is not really about trying to exploit a weakness in South Africa, because I don't really think they have any," Warburton said. "It's more just trying to stop what they are pretty good at. It's a big job up front, so we have to be very good there."

South Africa's overwhelming history in this matchup gives it the edge, but a Gatland-coached team can never be counted out.

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