Warren Gatland has promised he will select his strongest possible Wales squad when his Six Nations title-holders travel to world champions South Africa for a two-Test tour in June.
Northern hemisphere sides have often been criticised for taking weakened teams on their travels to the Tri-Nations countries at the end of a long European season, but Gatland wants Wales to build on their Six Nations Grand Slam success by giving themselves every chance of a first win on South African soil.
But Wales’ already difficult task has been made harder by the fact that both Tests, Bloemfontein and Pretoria, will be played at altitude.
”Our next challenge is South Africa and we will try to take as strong a side as possible, given that we need to speak to one or two senior players about the condition of their body after a long season,” Wales coach Gatland said.
”As world champions I think South Africa deserve the respect of us taking the strongest squad,” the New Zealander, yet to lose a match as Wales coach after his appointment following his adopted country’s pool-phase exit at the World Cup, added.
”We have never won in South Africa and given that we are playing two Test matches on the Highveld, statistics suggest it is very hard to win in those conditions.
”Given that home advantage it’s going to be a huge challenge for us.
It’s about testing ourselves and taking the next step against the best teams in the world and seeing how much we have progressed in the last three months.
”We think we have made significant improvement in terms of the confidence we have built up since the first game [in the Six Nations when Wales came from behind to beat England at Twickenham].
”There is still a heap of work to do and I’m excited about going to South Africa and excited about what a difficult challenge that is. That’s what sport is about: it’s about testing yourself against the best.”
Former Ireland, Wasps and Waikato supremo Gatland hopes the bulk of his Grand Slam squad will be available but hasn’t ruled out taking along a couple of in-form players too.
”The players who played well during the Six Nations have got a foot in the door and we also have to consider the form of some of the players over the last few weeks as well,” added Gatland.
”We are essentially looking at a squad of 26 to 28, and with no real time difference it would be easy to fly a couple of players over if we do get injuries.”
But Gatland said the likes of openside flanker Martyn Williams, who came out of a short-lived Test retirement to play a starring role in the Grand Slam campaign, would need to be handled with care.
”The way Martyn is playing, at the moment his form is outstanding. If we look after him well enough I think we could get him through to the World Cup [in 2011]. To get him through to the World Cup it will mean careful management.”
Meanwhile, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) made it clear they didn’t want Gatland named as head coach for next year’s British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
”We know he would be an outstanding candidate for that job, but there is so much work to be done in Wales,” said WRU chief executive Roger Lewis. — Sapa-AFP