South Africa v Wales: Sporting history awaits tourists in the ‘Mother City’
|Venue: DHL Stadium, Cape Town Date: Saturday, 16 July Kick-off:16:05 BST|
|Coverage: Live radio commentary on BBC Radio Wales Extra – available via BBC Sounds, 882 MW and BBC Sport Online, Radio Cymru plus live text and match report on the BBC Sport website|
Rugby history awaits Wales this weekend. Beating world champions Springboks in a series in South Africa. It hardly seems feasible.
There have been very few things Welsh rugby has not achieved since its inception. Reaching a World Cup final or winning in New Zealand are perhaps the most significant which remain on the to-do list.
But in the week in which he announced his retirement, former Wales centre Jamie Roberts says a series victory in South Africa would rank among the greatest achievements in Welsh rugby.
A shot at rugby immortality he says. Few would disagree.
This South Africa side have become used to talk of sporting immortality in recent times. Winning the 2019 World Cup in Japan and defeating the British and Irish Lions last summer ensured that.
Cape Town was meant to be the destination where the Springboks wrapped up the three-match series against Wales.
With the state-of-the art stadium looming in the distance, the sides are staying in neighbouring hotels in the Mother City.
This proximity is fitting as South Africa and Wales have been battling like squabbling siblings since the first whistle in Pretoria, where Wales were deemed naughty boys with four yellow cards, even being reduced to 12 men at one point.
Then you had the tourists battling back in Bloemfontein and delivering a decisive blow with a late Josh Adams try and brilliant Gareth Anscombe conversion.
It was not meant to be like this, with Wales expected to be obedient visitors bowing to their hosts, especially in the first two Tests as they were played at altitude.
The script has not been followed in a series which has seen moments of niggle, plus controversial home team selection which prompted Sir Gareth Edwards to accuse South Africa of devaluing the series and disrespecting their opponents.
It has provided an unexpected but compelling narrative that will be settled back at sea level in the Western Cape this weekend.
Wayne Pivac’s side have created their own little piece of history on this tour by becoming the first Wales men’s team to beat the Springboks in South Africa.
They are now hoping to become the first of the nations that make up the British and Irish Lions to win a series in South Africa, with neither Ireland, Scotland nor England ever having managed the feat either.
The Lions managed one series victory in 1997 while France have won two in the past in South Africa.
Wales are a facing a Springboks side who have in the recent past come out on top in recent deciders between the two nations.
The 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat at Twickenham was followed by semi-final heartbreak in Japan four years later, when Handre Pollard kicked a late penalty to complete a 19-16 win.
So for the likes of captain Dan Biggar, full-back Liam Williams, wing Josh Adams, prop Wyn Jones and locks Alun Wyn Jones and Adam Beard, there are the painful memories of losing the third Test decider against South Africa almost 12 months ago at the same Cape Town venue.
Springboks refreshed or rusty?
Wales have had 14 players who have started all three Tests with only wings Josh Adams and Alex Cuthbert alternating.
In contrast, South Africa lock Eben Etzebeth is the only Springbok to start in every game as he prepares to win his 100th cap this weekend.
While Wales will be more settled they could also be more shattered, as they rely on one final burst of adrenalin in a final game of the season before heading for the beach. Battle hardened or out of energy? We shall see.
South Africa’s selection policy this season means the Springbok side that takes the field on Saturday will be rested. Whether they will be rusty remains to be seen.
Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber made 14 starting changes from the side who scraped a 32-29 win in Pretoria for the second Test.
After watching that side lose 13-12, Nienaber reverted to his tried and trusted by making 10 more personnel alterations for Cape Town.
His final selection includes 11 players who started the World Cup final in Japan three years ago and the bulk of the squad who won the British and Irish Lions series last year.
So the pedigree is there. So is the pressure.
Jake White, coach of the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks side, criticised the selection policy, saying South Africa should be focusing on winning matches.
Former Springbok Victor Matfield says Nienaber is feeling the pressure ahead of the third Test with controversial director of rugby Rassie Erasmus not directly involved on match-day in this series.
Nienaber does not want to be the first Springboks coach to lose a home series to Wales. That would be hard to come back from.
The Cape Town arena is where the Lions played South Africa in three Tests last year in front of no fans because of Covid-19 regulations.
It is a more modern stadium – constructed for the 2010 football World Cup – than the older cathedrals of Pretoria and Bloemfontein, but there are concerns about the playing surface.
Stormers captain and prop Steven Kitshoff is hoping the conditions will not affect the occasion.
“We haven’t played a game there in about three to four weeks, so I am not 100% sure what the surface looks like at the moment,” said Kitshoff.
“With the United Rugby Championship it was a bit slippery and certain areas of the field were not in great shape.
“We were promised by the groundskeepers that they would fix the surface and hopefully it holds up nicely this weekend.”
Whatever happens on Saturday, Wales’ punishing South Africa odyssey could be qualified as a success, especially after a humbling first home defeat against Italy in March, as Wales finished fifth in the Six Nations.
A three-point defeat and stunning victory in the opening two Tests at altitude represent a considerable collective achievement, given that Wales had won just three of their last 11 games before they left Heathrow last month.
Many individuals have shone, including previously uncapped Leicester flanker Tommy Reffell, and all have been superbly harnessed by captain Dan Biggar.
Wales travelled minus four injured British and Irish Lions – Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty – so 14 months out from the World Cup, the picture looks more promising than it did three months ago.
A series win in South Africa would make it even more promising. As Dr Roberts says, “immortality” awaits.