Another November and another Autumn Internationals series is about to start for Wales. Again the WRU have opted for the jam packed four matches (including the much criticised extra game outside of the international window) that gives Gatland another chance to try and improve his record as a coach against Southern Hemisphere opposition.
With Tonga, Argentina and yet again Australia on the cards Wales must first turn their attention to what is likely to be their toughest opponents – South Africa.
South Africa approach their tour of the Northern Hemisphere in fine form, having won seven out of their nine test matches this year, having only lost two games to New Zealand who are as ever in imperious form. Their team comprises of a hugely physical pack and their backline oozes with experience.
Wales approach this game with a fairly stable side with only minimal changes made from the side that beat England so emphatically back in March as they claimed yet another 6 Nations title, and most of these are due to injuries. The biggest talking point as ever has been who has been chosen as fly half. Rhys Priestland, back to his best for the Scarlets, has been given the nod by Gatland. It seems harsh on Dan Biggar who has done very little wrong to lose the ten jersey, yet Priestland’s form and the fact that he will be linking up with his fellow Scarlets in the mid field have likely given him the edge. The biggest gripe could by why is Biggar not on the bench, having even put in a stint at full back for the Ospreys to prove his versatility.
Instead James Hook returns to the fold to take on his usual role of utility back on the bench for Wales, providing cover for fly half and centre with Liam Williams providing the cover for full back and wing.
Amongst the familiar faces of this settled Wales side there is room for one new face, that of Eli Walker. A speeding winger from the Ospreys he was in great form last season until injury hit, and he is an exciting new talent who will undoubtedly relish the chance Cuthbert’s injury has afforded him.
Wales’ biggest task in facing this in form and physical South African unit is that they need to hit the ground running. As their opening match in this year’s Six Nations showed, they are serial slow starters. Added to that their Autumn Internationals campaigns have rarely seen them hitting the heights of their best rugby then this Welsh team really needs to make the step up.
Over recent years they have become more and more competitive against their more successful Southern hemisphere opponents yet still keep falling agonisingly short from getting a crucial win. Gatland and his coaching staff will hope that those players that relished and experienced the Lions’ victory in Australia this summer will bring that mind set of winning back into the Wales camp.
For all Wales’ success in Europe if they are truly to be lauded as one of the great teams, they simply must start beating teams as successful as South Africa.
Players from South Africa such as Alberts, Louw, Fourie, Habana and de Villiers will provide Wales with their sternest task of the year, certainly much more so than what they faced in the 6 Nations. The loss of Jamie Roberts could prove crucial, especially if Gatland tries to shoe horn centre Scott Williams into playing a similar style of hard running rugby as Roberts.
Williams’ attributes are different to his fellow Welshman’s and if Gatland tries to get him to play in a way he’s not best suited to then it could have a negative impact on the linking play he has with his Scarlets team mates Davies and Priestland.
Wales will need to start quickly, and their pack must rely on their much vaunted fitness to try and out last their South African opponents. Dan Lydiate, returning to the back row, will have a long 80 minutes to keep South African’s big runners quiet.
This match looks set to be a hugely physical encounter and South Africa are clear favourites. Having a string of test matches under their belts in recent weeks they will be a far more effective and gelled unit than a Wales side that hasn’t played together since March. But Wales have star players of their own; Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, George North and Leigh Halfpenny are all huge players in their own right. Wales will desperately hope that their pack can give their team the platform to compete with South Africa so that they are not blasted off the pitch in the first half.
One thing is for sure, there will be battered and bruised bodies at the end of it, and when you play a team like South Africa you cannot afford to take a backwards step. Wales will have to play at their very best if they are to compete well let alone win this game.
Kick off: Saturday 9th November, 5.30pm
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Blues), George North (Northampton Saints), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Eli Walker (Ospreys), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Unattached): Gethin Jenkins (Blues), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Bradley Davies (Blues), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Dan Lydiate (Racing Metro), Sam Warburton (Blues, capt), Toby Faletau (Dragons).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets), Paul James (Bath), Scott Andrews (Blues), Luke Charteris (Perpignan), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) Lloyd Williams (Blues), James Hook (Perpignan), Liam Williams (Scarlets)
South Africa: Pat Lambie; JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana; Morné Steyn, Fourie du Preez; Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis (v-captain), Frans Malberhe, Eben Etzebeth, Flip van der Merwe, Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Adriaan Strauss, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Coenie Oosthuizen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Ruan Pienaar, JJ Engelbrecht, Willie le Roux.