Clash of the champions

The Springboks kick off the beginning of a new era on Saturday by hosting Wales in a Test match at Bloemfontein’s Vodacom Park, their first match under new coach Peter de Villiers. What better way to kick off the 2008 international season than with a game between the best northern hemisphere side and the best southern hemisphere side, the World Cup champions against the Six Nations champions.

After their weak performance in last year’s World Cup, where the Welsh team failed to reach the quarterfinals, coach Gareth Jenkins was promptly replaced by New Zealander Warren Gatland, who has pulled off a rapid turnaround since the beginning of the year. Wales were dominant in the Six Nations, winning all five of their games, including beating World Cup finalists England.

History records that the Boks have a solid record against the Welsh—the two nations have played 20 matches against each other since 1906, with 18 wins to South Africa, one draw and one win to the Welsh.
The Springboks will look to build on this good record and create momentum heading towards the Tri-Nations, which begins in a month.

The Welsh are missing a few key players, with centre Gavin Henson and flanker Martyn Williams recovering from injury.

Gatland is also experiencing a bad run of luck at number nine, with his three best scrumhalves—Mike Phillips, Dwayne Peel and Andy Williams—also injured, forcing a call-up for the less favoured Gareth Cooper, who will partner flyhalf Stephen Jones.

That said, the Welsh still have some talent to draw on, with big number eight and captain Ryan Jones and speeding wing Shane Williams being players the Boks must keep two eyes on.

Bok right wing Tonderai Chavangha will mark Williams—who was named player of the tournament at the Six Nations for the six tries he scored—and we should witness an exciting duel between two of the fastest players in world rugby. Pierre Spies will pack down opposite Jones, marking his return to the green and gold after dropping out of last year’s World Cup squad because of illness.

The Springboks will be missing first-choice World Cup XV players Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie, but should still out-class the Welsh in most positions.

John Smit will captain the side for a record 50th time, earning his 76th cap in the process and making him the fifth-most capped Bok of all time. De Villiers is also drawing on the international experience of stalwarts Juan Smith, Bakkies Botha and Bryan Habana to smooth out the first-time nerves of players such as Andries Bekker and Brian Mujati.

Saturday’s match will be played under the standard old rules, not the Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) that were trialled during the Super 14. What will be interesting to see is the effect this will have. Our locally based Boks’ decision-making might be slightly rusty, as the change back to the old rules could create moments of uncertainty. But this should be countered by the Boks’ superior fitness from playing with the more free-flowing ELVs this year.

If the Boks put their heads down and wear down the big Welshmen in the first half, their fitness and experience—as well as the effect of impact players coming off the bench—should be more than enough to ensure a comfortable victory.

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