Crunch clash for Boks and Wales
September 8, 2011
There are those that feel that John Smit is no longer worthy of a place in the Springbok front-row © Getty Images
It is rare that a reigning champion can go into a title defence under very little pressure to perform but that is the rather strange position that the Springboks find themselves in ahead of their World Cup opener against Wales, on Sunday.
South Africa deservedly lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in France four years ago but their triumph is still sneered at by some simply because emerged triumphant without having had to go through either New Zealand or Australia during their campaign, with their southern hemisphere rivals having suffered shock defeats in the last eight.
The quality and style of their play was also called into question during the tournament but the Springboks kept their heads down, stuck to what they were good at and were crowned world champions for the second time. They will be hoping for more of the same this time around.
The rugby world is primarily focused on the All Blacks and their quest to end their 24-year wait for World Cup glory so the pressure is pretty much off the Boks, which makes them a formidable proposition. There are serious concerns over the potency of their back-line and question marks over the continued presence of captain John Smit in the front-row but they remain a force to be reckoned with. They will be determined to prove as much against Wales on Sunday.
However, Wales are not exactly burdened by the weight of expectancy themselves. They suffered a humiliating first-round exit in France four years ago after losing out to Fiji in a thrilling winner-takes-all encounter at the end of the pool stages, so reaching the quarters would have to be considered as progress.
There is no doubt, though, that New Zealander Warren Gatland and his coaches will be looking beyond that. The Welsh seemed to go backwards after winning the Grand Slam in Gatland's first year at the helm but they showed signs of moving in the right direction again this year and their warm-up win over England in Cardiff will have done wonders for their self-belief. Certainly, they will feel that anything is possible if they can catch the Springboks cold this weekend.
South Africa - Player to Watch: At just 5ft 11in, Heinrich Brussow is a man among giants within the Springboks pack. But the Cheetahs openside is a key player for South Africa and his ability to pinch or slow down opponent's ball at the breakdown could strangle Wales' hopes of an upset.
South Africa - Team News: South Africa coach Peter De Villiers has named the most experienced side in Springboks history with a total of 815 caps among his chosen men. John Smit is recalled to lead from hooker, meaning Bismarck Du Plessis drops to the bench. Prop Tendai Mtawarira, loose forward Schalk Burger and fullback Frans Steyn also return to the starting XV while Danie Rossouw replaces the injured Bakkies Botha.
Wales - Player to Watch: The pressure will undoubtedly be on the young Scarlets fly-half Rhys Priestland who will be winning only his fifth cap against the World Champions. The Boks' beefy back-row and physical midfield will look to rush Priestland and he will have to show considerable skill and composure to navigate Wales towards the win.
Wales - Team News: Warren Gatland's decision to give Priestland the reins at No.10 means James Hook is reverts to fullback with Lee Byrne missing out on selection altogether. Dragons lock Luke Charteris is preferred to Bradley Davies in the second row while Toby Faletau retains the No.8 jersey with Ryan Jones injured on the sidelines along with Stephen Jones and Gethin Jenkins.
Key Battle: The battle at the breakdown and around the fringes is set to be fiercely fought and both sides will be glad to have physical scrum-halves directing their packs and pitching in when necessary. Wales' Mike Phillips and South Africa's Fourie Du Preez are among the most experienced and best in the world.
Trivia: Wales won all four of their games in New Zealand at the 1987 World Cup, finishing third after losing in the semi-finals to New Zealand in Brisbane.
Stats: South Africa need six more tries to reach the landmark of 100 World Cup tries.
"This is a big game for us. We have been focusing on Wales for quite some time now, so hopefully we can get everything right and it will be a good occasion for us." - South Africa lock Victor Matfield is taking nothing for granted against Wales
"We are going into this game looking for a win. If you get the world champions in your pool you want to play them first up and throw everything you've got at them." - Wales coach Warren Gatland promises a fiery Welsh performance
Prediction: South Africa's superior power and physicality upfront will allow them to dominate and ultimately edge a fierce and tight encounter.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jonny Wilkinson is the face of Toulon but whisper it, they might be a better team without him. Paul Eddison examines the case for dropping the talisman
"It does sometimes get tough as you get older, but there's nothing else I'd rather do." Tom Hamilton talks to fly-half Dan Carter
Stingers, a rampaging Fijian and two Dannys looking to be champions of the world - Monday Maul looks at some key talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Top 14, Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership with fireworks and monsters both featuring