Wales seeks 4 in a row over Boks, final blow for the north
After waiting 93 years to beat South Africa for the first time, Wales could make it four in a row over the Springboks on Saturday and strike a final blow for the resurgent northern hemisphere in the November rugby series.
Wales wouldn’t be making the biggest statement of the month if it won again in Cardiff — there’s likely no topping Ireland’s passion-fueled victory over world champion New Zealand — but the Welsh could provide the clinching argument that the north-south divide is no longer clear.
The timing is significant.
This weekend sees the last meetings between top northern and southern hemisphere teams before the Rugby World Cup in Japan starts next September. Southern hemisphere teams have won seven out of eight Rugby World Cups and the last two have been processions for New Zealand.
But the north has had its most successful end-of-year outing in years.
Ireland’s herculean effort against the All Blacks stands out. England also beat South Africa, and Wales outlasted Australia. England is tipped to be too good for Australia on Saturday and Wales to continue its recent dominance over the Springboks.
“When we have played them (South Africa) before it has been a big deal and there was a lot of pressure to beat them. It was like a World Cup final,” Wales hooker Ken Owens said. “But I think once you do it once, you know how to close the games out against them.”
Wales has now done it four times in the last five games against the Boks and is seeking a clean sweep of all four of its November internationals for the first time. It’s also looking for a ninth successive win to equal its best run, in 1999.
And the Rugby World Cup is around the corner.
“To go through an autumn campaign unbeaten would be pretty special and it sets us up well for the Six Nations and then building towards the World Cup,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said.
Gatland has responded to Wales’ consistent performances this year — nine wins from 11 — with consistent selection, making just one forced change to the team that beat Australia two weeks ago.
Liam Williams was brought in at fullback for Leigh Halfpenny, who was ruled out with concussion after a late tackle by Australia center Samu Kerevi that contributed to another hot talking point in the November series: The refereeing.
Kerevi’s hit as he attempted a chargedown, with his shoulder into Halfpenny’s head, went unpunished despite World Rugby’s drive to eradicate dangerous tackles. England flyhalf Owen Farrell also got away with a high shoulder charge in the dying moments against South Africa, which might have cost England the game.
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph this week that referees needed to be far stricter.
“The only way you can get player behavior to change is to sanction with red cards and, actually, we have probably not seen enough of it,” Gosper said, putting match officials and players on notice for the year’s final international weekend.
While Wales was flying high, the Springboks hit “rock bottom” the last few seasons, coach Rassie Erasmus admitted this week. Erasmus took control at the start of the year, given the job of repairing a two-year spell under Allister Coetzee that saw the Springboks plummet in the rankings and approach laughing-stock status.
Erasmus’ Boks have been inconsistent — they began with a loss to Wales in June and have won just seven out of 13 this season — but beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in a result that jolted the rugby world and revealed their potential.
Erasmus has said repeatedly he’s building squad depth but the Springboks are close to complete. He will try out Embrose Papier again at scrumhalf, with a backup to first-choice No. 9 and playmaker Faf de Klerk his one uncertainty.
Wales will be South Africa’s toughest opponent of the tour, Erasmus said, and he also recognized the ramifications of this November series for next year.
“It will be so close in the World Cup, which is great for world rugby and great for the way the game is going but not so much for the coaches because you do not sleep so well,” he said.
Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Gareth Anscombe, Gareth Davies; Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Nicky Smith. Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rob Evans, Dillon Lewis, Cory Hill, Ellis Jenkins, Tomos Williams, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Sbu Nkosi, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Handre Pollard, Embrose Papier; Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Franco Mostert, RG Snyman, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi, Thomas du Toit, Vincent Koch, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw, Ivan van Zyl, Elton Jantjies, Cheslin Kolbe.