DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA – Warren Gatland and Wales head into their summer test series with South Africa well rested for the first time in two years. After none of the Welsh regions made the RaboDirect Pro12 playoffs, Gatland’s stars had a lengthy layoff. Yesterday, he named the twenty three Welshmen that will line up in Durban against a hungry, yet aged, Springboks side. Eight of the South Africans played in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, an astonishing number which underscores the selection difficulties that faced Heyneke Meyer this week. RugbyWrapUp has you covered all summer long with our match previews. Here’s a position by position breakdown of how South Africa and Wales stack up.
Wales names two massively experienced props in Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, each of whom has over 100 international caps. Ken Owens replaces the injured Richard Hibbard as the hooker, and he will have to work hard to get the set piece right. Jones is a strong scrummager who also makes an impact at the ruck, but is somewhat limited in open play. Jenkins, in contrast, has been compared to a flanker in his ability to poach turnovers and his high work rate. The trio will be opposed by Springboks Gurthrö Steenkamp, Bismarck du Plessis, and Jannie du Plessis. Steenkamp was South Africa’s player of the year in 2010, but has fallen off the radar since then. The du Plessis pair figure to remain a backbone of the South African side through the next World Cup, and the battle in the scrums should be gargantuan. South Africa takes the edge here because they have “The Beast” Tendai Mtawarira to call upon in the late going.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones endured a somewhat mixed season at the club level, but his international form remains as strong as ever. He is paired with Luke Charteris, who has earned his recall to the national side. Charteris stands on forty six caps, so Gatland has opted for experience to match the power of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Matfield will be captaining the Springboks for the eighteenth time, and his partnership at club and country level with Botha is one of the strongest in world rugby. Botha may not be as beloved as Jonny Wilkinson (nobody is), but he also was a major contributor to Toulon’s domestic and European double this season. The Springboks unquestionably have the edge in the second row.
Dan Lydiate, Aaron Shingler, and Taulupe Faletau will start for Wales, matching up against Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, and Duane Vermeulen. Neither team will consider the back row to be their strength. Louw is coming off a disappointing end to the campaign for Bath, and could try to make amends with an impressive showing this summer. Dan Lydiate has been pronounced fit just in time for the first test, and he captained the Welsh to a victory over the Eastern Province Kings on Tuesday. Lydiate was part of Racing Metro’s expensive make-over this summer, but was unfortunately injured for the latter part of the campaign, missing the final five weeks. Wales may possess a slight edge here, but at the moment, none of the loose forwards appear to be game changers.
Morné Steyn and Fourie du Preez man the pivot for South Africa. du Preez replaces Ruan Pienaar, who has been named on the bench. Steyn recovered from his astonishing loss of form in 2013. The South African media has begun to question Meyer’s conservative selection policy, which will see almost no new blood effectively introduced to the South African side this year. It is difficult to see a single member of the fifteen named still playing in 2019, while over half the side is on the wrong side of thirty. Injuries have taken their toll on South Africa’s depth, but legitimate concerns have been raised. Wales’ longstanding difficulties at fly-half continue, with the unconvincing Dan Biggar named as the starter, paired with Mike Phillips. Phillips fall from grace continued during the Six Nations, but he has worked his way back into Gatland’s favor. He probably owes his place to Wales’ lack of another effective option, and cannot afford another disciplinary misstep. Biggar is a known, unexceptional quantity. Not having Leigh Halfpenny to take the kicking duties is a major blow to the Welsh, but Biggar is capable of making most of his expected kicks, though few spectacular ones. If Steyn has an off day, the advantage will swing decisively to Wales.
South Africa are missing five centers, an extraordinary dilemma that has forced Meyer to name JP Pietersen as a makeshift No. 13, with youngster Jan Serfontein on his inside. The issue was forced by Frans Steyn, who has decided to take a temporary leave of absence from international rugby for unannounced “personal reasons.” South African papers have claimed that a contract dispute with South Africa’s governing body is to blame, but Steyn has maintained his silence on the issue. This position affords Wales a massive advantage, with British and Irish Lions Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies both fit to play. Roberts and Davies could carve apart the makeshift center pairing, and getting the pair the ball as much as possible will certainly form a key part of Gatland’s game plan.
Wales were handed a major boost with the news that George North could start, along with Alex Cuthbert and Liam Williams. While the Welsh will unquestionably miss Halfpenny’s kicking and his ability to run the ball, this is a rock solid back three. South Africa counter with the legendary Bryan Habana, Willie Le Roux, and debutante Cornal Hendricks. Habana had a solid season in France, while le Roux adds to his rapidly increasing haul of twelve international caps. This should be an interesting contest, particularly if South Africa live up to their reputation and play a game based around kicking. North and Cuthbert excel at running at defenses, and will surely punish any mistakes.
On balance, South Africa probably have the better side. While I think it’s possible that Meyer’s conservative game plan will play right into Wales’ strengths, the home field advantage should see them through safely.