When Wales coach Warren Gatland was asked what he thought of the Springbok team his men will face in the quarterfinal, his response was “same old, same old”, which will be words he should be hoping don’t get repeated in the post-mortem on the big Twickenham clash.
When Gatland referred to the Boks being “same old, same old” he wasn’t insulting them. He was referring to the physicality every other nation respects and fears. Those words though could easily refer to most of the results of the matches between the two teams, with South Africa winning 27 of the 30 games and Wales just winning twice with one draw.
Many of those have followed a predictable script too, with Wales coming close on many occasions, particularly during the Gatland era as coach, but always tending to be on the losing side. It was like that in their last meeting at a World Cup in 2011, when the Boks won 16-15 in a match in Wellington where Wales were arguably the better team.
There have been a few more games like that since 2011, but significantly Wales did break the seal the last time the sides played. They won 12-6 in Cardiff last November, and the Welsh coaches and players have been speaking almost since the final whistle sounded on their Pool A defeat to Australia last week, the result that tipped them into the Bok path, about the confidence building effect of that victory.
Talk is cheap though and in reality a harder look needs to be taken at the teams that played that day. The Welsh had almost the same pack that they have for Saturday’s game, but the Boks have a vastly changed team and a forward unit that is significantly better equipped to assert physical dominance than the one that played that day.
Schalk Burger, who was back in Japan by the time the Boks played in Cardiff in a match that fell outside the international window, meaning they had to go without their overseas based players, is now playing as well as he has at any time of his career. Willem Alberts, the man many of us felt was most sorely missed on that tour, is back in the game and ready to provide strong reinforcement – with the emphasis on strong – from the bench.
And then there is the giant young lock Lood de Jager, who has teamed up with the equally impressive Eben Etzebeth to present what is arguably the scariest and most influential second row combination at this World Cup.
But it really is the loose trio where you find the most significant difference. Marcel Coetzee was brilliant before he was injured earlier this year, but last year he wasn’t in nearly the same form. He played alongside Oupa Mohoje in that Cardiff game because Francois Louw missed that tour through injury.
Louw, after a slow start to the World Cup, is starting to regain his old touch, and will be given the important task on Saturday of negating the ball scavenging and slowing down wizardry of Sam Warburton. He will be helped by Duane Vermeulen and Burger, both of whom are no slouches when it comes to competing at the breakdown, plus auxiliary loose forward Bismarck du Plessis.
The ability of those players to blunt Warburton, and the ability of the two locks and Burger, Vermeulen and later Alberts to ensure that Warburton is negated as a factor by the sheer physicality of the South African drive across the gainline, will determine whether the Boks will still be here next week.
The Boks who played in the 2011 World Cup will be well aware of how unforgiving and how merciless the World Cup is. You have to be out of the country within 24 hours of losing your play-off game, and the Boks were on their bus outside their Wellington team hotel and heading for the airport within hours of losing to Australia four years ago.
Everyone remembers that quarterfinal as the Bryce Lawrence test, but the Lawrence factor wouldn’t have been so great had it not been for the influence that the Wallaby fetcher David Pocock had on that game. Pocock got away with murder that day, but he was also brilliant at his job, and as Burger reminded us this week, Warburton can do the same for Wales on Saturday.
The Welsh will be looking to chop down the big Bok ball carriers in the tackle and then Warburton will be looking to come into the play to snaffle the ball from them as quickly as it is possible to do so. The point has been made in the British media that with so many outsized men in their unit, the Boks might struggle to get down to it as quickly as the Welsh do, and that appears to be what Wales are pinning their hopes on.
Their coach, Gatland, does understand what makes Bok teams tick. They do need to win the physical battle and get their carriers across the gainline to win. It is to combat that intent that he has opted to return to Warburton as his only specialist fetcher after last week he paired him with Justin Tipuric against the Wallabies.
That decision does not suggest that Gatland feels what Tipuric offers can be done without. Rather it is an indication that he feels Warburton is good enough to do it on his own, and he prefers Warburton as an out and out opensider. He said he was uncomfortable that last week Warburton wasn’t quite playing to his strengths. This week he will. And Gatland does have Tipuric to call on from the bench should he be needed. The Boks will be watching out for that in the second half.
With the winning of possession so important to the territory battle that the Boks simply have to win in order to ensure that Dan Biggar’s goalkicking is negated, it is how the loose-forwards go that will determine which of these teams has a way forward and which will be on their way home.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Handre Pollard, Fourie du Preez (captain), Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Burger, Francois Louw, Lodewyk de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira. Replacements: Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane, Jannie du Plessis, Pieter Steph du Toit, Willem Alberts, Ruan Pienaar, Pat Lambie, Jan Serfontein.
Wales: Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert, Tyler Morgan, Jamie Roberts, George North, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies, Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Samson Lee, Scott Baldwin, Gethin Jenkins. Replacements: Ken Owens, Paul James, Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Priestland, James Hook.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).