South Africa v Wales | Saturday 17 October | Twickenham, London | 17:00
South Africa and Wales will get the quarter-final phase of the Rugby World Cup underway when they meet at Twickenham on Saturday evening. Both sides have endured some tough times at the tournament thus far but have overcome those challenges and now find themselves among the final eight teams in with a shout of lifting the so Webb Ellis Cup.
With the group stage over and midweek games now a thing of the past, both teams will have enjoyed a well-deserved rest period. For the Welsh, the break couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. Warren Gatland will have had a full week to assess his injury-ravaged squad. The interval will have also worked in Heynecke Meyer’s favour. With the former Bulls mentor still facing one or two selection dilemmas, the break would have given him a chance to make some tough calls about who will take to the field on Saturday.
The term “epic encounter” has been bandied about quite a bit at this years tournament. While there have been some cracking games, this quarter-final promises to usurp anything that’s come before it. With some fantastic rugby in the offing and Hollywoodbets being extremely charitable with their odds, make sure you lay your stake good and early.
To Win (80 Mins)
South Africa 2/7
South Africa (-8.5)
While the mention of Sushi may still see certain members of this South African squad turn a bright shade of red, the recurring nightmares involving Michael Leach and co will probably have become a lot less frequent in recent weeks. The Springboks have grown a great amount since that infamous day in Brighton. They now look a much more cohesive bunch as opposed to the rag-tag group that turned up at the Brighton Community Stadium.
One of the major improvements in the South African’s game has been their scrum. They were outfoxed by the Japanese, who looked to get the ball to their eigthman's feet before the Boks' engine room could put the pressure on. The South Africans have become wise to the tactic though and while it’s highly unlikely the Welsh will implement a similar strategy at the set-piece, the South Africans are now prepared for it.
The key to this scrummaging renaissance has been Frans Malherbe. The Western Province tighthead has annihilated every loosehead that has been put in front of him. With Jannie du Plessis struggling for form, the time has come to hand over the reins to the Province youngster. Meyer must be having similar thoughts, as he opted to start Malherbe against Wales and play du Plessis off the bench.
Another Veteran who has been usurped by one of South African rugby’s rising stars, is Victor Matfield. ‘Oom Vic’ has struggled to have a real influence in any of his appearances for the Boks this year. While his experience has been a huge asset for the team, his sell-by date has well and truly passed. With Matfield still struggling to overcome a hamstring injury, Lood de Jagger will get another chance to cement his place in the starting fifteen.
The final selection conundrum Meyer was facing, was what to do with his hookers? While we all know how devastating an in from Bismark du Plessis can be, his recent performances have been well below par. With Adriaan Strauss and Schalk Britz putting in some exciting displays when on the field, Meyer might have been tempted to make a change. The South African mentor has elected to start du Plessis this weekend, however, with Adriaan Strauss providing cover off the bench.
While a few of the veteran forwards have seen their starting spots commandeered by the youngsters, most of the backline stalwarts remain. JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana have been playing like a pair of twenty-one-year-olds. Both wingers managed to grab hat-tricks during the group stage and will be looking to add to their try-scoring tallies this weekend.
Fourie du Preez is another veteran who has excelled at the tournament. The scrumhalf's grubber to set up one of Habana’s tries against the USA would have had English football clubs inquiring about his availability. His vision and decision-making have greatly enhanced this South Africans side’s game while his pinpoint box kicking has helped relieve a lot of the pressure that fell on Handre Pollard’s shoulders earlier in the season.
As I alluded to earlier, the Boks have come on leaps and bounds since their opening game, they will have to step up another level this weekend though as the Welsh pose an entirely different threat to the sides the men in Green and Gold took on in their pool games. If Meyer’s men can get the ascendancy up front, the backs should be able to run in a few tries.
I honestly had written the Dragons' quarter-final chances off before the tournament had even started. Not only were they placed in the same pool as the tournament hosts and the in form Australians but they also had to contend with the loss of three of their star players.
While a brave performance from Michael Cheika’s Wallabies last weekend, thwarted the Dragons' hopes of topping the ‘Pool of Death’, Warren Gatland will still be elated with his side's pool performances. Their victory over the tournament hosts at Fortress Twickenham will go down as one of the finest moments in the history of Welsh rugby. The win essentially sealed the Dragons' quarter-final qualification and probably brought on the biggest celebration Wales has ever seen.
Last weekend's clash with the Australians has further deepened the Welsh injury crisis. Utility back Liam Williams has been ruled out for the remainder of the event. His place in the squad has been taken by Eli Walker, who ironically, was ruled out of the tournament a month ago. Walker is still not fit enough to take to the field, but should be able to play a part if the Dragons make it through to the semi-finals.
While the loss of Liam Williams is a big blow to the Dragons chances, the news that Jamie Roberts will be fit enough to start on Saturday would have been music to Warren Gatland's ears. Roberts will be joined in the centres for Saturdays match by either young gun Tyler Morgan, or the forgotten man of Welsh rugby, James hook.
Elsewhere in the backline, former Junior All Black, Gareth Anscombe will once again don the number 15 jumper while George North shifts back to the wing having played outside-centre against Australia.
Gatland has a tough decision to make regarding his front row selection. Prop, Gareth Jenkins was rested last week and his understudy, Paul James put in a solid scrummaging performance against the much-hyped Australian pack. With the Boks scrum on an upward trend, the Welsh mentor must be having sleepless nights trying to decide which prop will best counteract the South African front row.
With a litany of first choice players missing, Wales are going to have to scrap like they’ve never scraped before if they are to beat an ever-improving Springbok side.
Stats That Matter
The Welsh have been miserly in defense at the World Cup thus far, only conceding two tries while running in eleven of their own. While the Bok’s stats are somewhat inflated due to the make-up of their pool, they still ran in an impressive twenty-three tries while only conceding three.
In total, the two sides have met on thirty occasions dating back to 1906. The South Africans have trumped the Welsh in the majority of these meetings, winning twenty-seven and only losing twice. The last game played between the sides took place at the Millennium stadium last November. The game was the scene of Jean De Villers horrendous knee injury – that lead to the former Bok skipper being sidelined for six months. The South Africans eventually went on to lose the game by twelve points to six, and De Villiers’ injury would prove to have huge ramifications for the 'Boks World Cup build-up. The last five games between the sides have seen a total of 205 points scored. The Welsh have contributed 89 points while the South Africans have scored 116 points. The Dragons' average points per game sits at 17.8 points per game while the Springboks average 23.2.
Two of the tournament's leading try-scorers will go to head to head in this encounter. Bryan Habana currently shares the lead on the try scoring charts with the All Blacks flyer, Julian Savea while Welsh scrumhalf Gareth Davies is only a try behind the leaders.
Verdict: South Africa 2/7
While the Welsh have managed to soldier on with their second string side thus far, I think the Boks just have too much quality for this injury-ravaged Dragons side to handle.