Wales eye priceless victory
June 4, 2010
James Hook was a suprise inclusion by Wales © Getty Images
South Africa are in town and for Wales that usually means one thing, defeat. The Springboks will descend upon the Millennium Stadium on Saturday for a one-off clash with no thoughts of allowing their hosts only a second win in a rivalry dating back to 1906.
This is not your garden variety Springbok side however, drawn as it is from their overseas stocks, a number of promising youngsters and several elder statesmen keen to remind the powers that be of their worth.
Falling a week after the Bulls and Stormers' brutal Super 14 final, this fixture, a commemoration of the Boks' opening of the Millennium Stadium and only loss to Wales, in 1999, has been a controversial one from the start. Grumblings from the media that a scratch side would cheapen the caps on offer were accompanied by coach Peter De Villiers' confirmation that he would use the game as a sounding board for his overseas stars.
The controversy continued this week with Premier Rugby preventing the release of Bath's Butch James for the fixture, due to it falling outside of the IRB's designated Test window. His place in the side has gone to promising youngster Juan de Jongh and while James will hope that bureaucracy has not cost him a Test future his replacement has an enviable platform.
Alongside his Stormers team-mate Jaque Fourie, himself a replacement for injured Munster midfielder Jean de Villiers, he can stake a claim for further honours against France and in the Tri-Nations this summer while two further Stormers have been rewarded for an excellent season with their debuts, namely wing Gio Aplon and flanker Francois Louw.
The overseas contingent is headed by No.8 Joe van Niekerk, of Toulon, while Racing Metro fullback Frans Steyn, Leinster loose-head CJ van der Linde and Ulster's BJ Botha all return to the Test arena after featuring in some capacity during 2009. The South African press has been a mixture of doom and gloom, predicting a relatively straightforward home win in a fruitless encounter due mostly to the minute preparation time afforded to the visitors.
"It is extremely important to start well, otherwise we place a lot more pressure on ourselves ahead of the World Cup next year," De Villiers said. "We are in a pool with Wales, and if we don't do well on Saturday we give them a lot of confidence ahead of next year. We become just another team for them.
"We will give them a psychological advantage, and we cannot permit that. I told these players they must remember that I haven't announced the team to face France next week, and for a good reason - I haven't seen them play as a unit yet. If this team stands up for itself and proves to us how good it is, then there is pressure on the other team at home for their positions."
Warren Gatland's men have a historical disadvantage to overturn as well as doubts about their recent form. Their Six Nations was thrilling, but more notable for huge leads conceded and regained than cohesive play. Later, a comfortable win over Italy restored belief that Wales could command possession while the feel-good factor is high after Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys collected silverware at the end of the season.
Several key names are back in the fold, notably scrum-half Mike Phillips and centre James Hook, who has delayed shoulder surgery to turn out this weekend. As South Africa may bemoan their lack of established names, injuries have not been kind to the home side.
In recent seasons Welsh tour squads have travelled shorn of key names, Gavin Henson and Phillips in 2008 particularly, and they will do so again this season when they head for two Tests in New Zealand following this meeting. Their folk-hero wing, Shane Williams, has the summer off to rest his shoulder and there is a potentially mortal blow up front with the loss of loose-head Gethin Jenkins to a calf injury. Jenkins' workrate and leadership will be sorely missed, but Ospreys prop Paul James must now grasp another opportunity to influence the selectors with the World Cup in mind.
Gatland has opted for a solid core to his side, with eight of the starting line-up out for revenge having toured with the Lions last summer and another, Alun Wyn Jones, on the bench. To combat the visitors' admirable lineout there is the Blues' second-row unit of Deiniol Jones and Bradley Davies while importantly their best lineout forward, Jonathan Thomas, is also inked in at blindside. Ryan Jones will lead the side and youngster Sam Warburton gets a chance in place of the rested Martyn Williams. Can Wales head to New Zealand with the feelgood factor intact?
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), T Prydie (Ospreys), S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); P James (Ospreys), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), D Jones (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt)
Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues), AW Jones (Ospreys), R McCusker (Scarlets), R Rees (Cardiff Blues), D Biggar (Ospreys), A Bishop (Ospreys)
South Africa: F Steyn (Racing Metro); G Aplon (Stormers), J Fourie (Stormers), J de Jongh (Stormers), O Ndungane (Sharks); R Pienaar (Sharks), R Januarie (Stormers), CJ van der Linde (Leinster), J Smit (Sharks), BJ Botha (Ulster), D Rossouw (Bulls), V Matfield (Bulls), F Louw (Stormers), D Potgieter (Bulls), J van Niekerk (Toulon)
Replacements: C Ralepelle (Bulls), J du Plessis (Sharks), A Hargreaves (Sharks), R Kankowski (Sharks), M Bosman (Cheetahs), Z Kirchner (Bulls), B Basson (Cheetahs)
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
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