South Africa v Wales: Springboks await for Wayne Pivac’s side
When Siya Kolisi lifted the World Cup in 2019, it marked the culmination of a journey that had begun 518 days earlier.
The then head coach Rassie Erasmus was taking charge of his first match and handed out 13 new caps in a June 2018 encounter with Wales in Washington DC.
Now with a similar length of time until the 2023 World Cup final in Paris, the teams meet again.
But unlike four years ago, Wales are the side looking for a resurgence while the Springboks have set goals of developing their game and building depth.
As Wales fly out to South Africa on 23 June, BBC Sport Wales runs the rule over the formidable squad that Wayne Pivac’s team will meet this summer in a three-Test series.
Appointed South Africa head coach in January 2020, Jacques Nienaber could not have imagined his first Test would not be for another 18 months.
The pandemic limited opportunities to cast the selection net too far and his selections were initially designed to defeat the British and Irish Lions, a task he managed with the 2-1 series win in the summer of 2021.
This 43-man squad named for this year’s series contains a balance of trusted senior players, a return for some after a few years out of the Test environment and a number of potential debutants.
Form has been rewarded with an impressive 17 players having experienced the pressure of playing in a final for their club this season.
One of those deciders was the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC) final, played in Cape Town between the Stormers and Bulls and won by the hosts.
The prospect of an expanding league was sold to its audience as a chance to watch the world champions ply their trade against European nations, but it arguably became a greater vehicle for shining a light on South Africa’s emerging talent.
That will only increase with their inclusion in European competition next season.
Five of the eight uncapped players in Nienaber’s squad played in that tightly contested URC final.
Those include the relentless scavenger Deon Fourie, who finished the game with a man-of-the-match medal around his neck and the highest number of turnovers won this season. At 35, he could become the oldest player to make his Springboks debut.
His younger Stormers team-mate, the dynamic and destructive number eight Evan Roos, swept up the end-of-season URC awards, including the most prestigious of the lot, players’ player of the year.
Others have also impressed. Likened to Jason Robinson by his World Cup-winning coach Jake White, full-back Kurt-Lee Arendse topped the charts for clean breaks and he has reason to feel inspired – both Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi made their debuts a year out from a World Cup and then scored in the final.
But do not expect too much game-time for the new players early on this year.
Nienaber will be balancing the aim of increasing squad depth with getting results and building momentum first.
“When you represent the Boks, you represent your country and you represent a brand that has been around for more than 100 years,” said Nienaber.
“That is not the platform to develop. If a few results go our way over the course of the season, we may be in a position to give players more exposure to Test rugby.”
Magic eight question
So all the signs point to an experienced side being named for the first Test, although Duane Vermeulen has been ruled out of the series with a knee injury.
So who will fill the number eight berth? If Roos has been the standout candidate in the URC, his opposite number in that final, Elrigh Louw, has been close behind.
A week later, though, in a pulsating Premiership final at Twickenham, it was Leicester’s Jasper Wiese who took the man-of-the-match accolade.
His 11 caps may make him the favourite to wear the eight shirt despite only arriving in camp five days before the first Test.
Bulls back row Marcell Coetzee could also fill that void. He is a man who proved crucial in stopping Leinster winning a fifth consecutive URC title, no mean feat given that their squad contained 19 Ireland players.
Along with Quins’ Andre Esterhuizen and Warrick Gelant, Coetzee has another shot to pull on the green and gold, with the returning trio last donning the colours in 2019.
Number 10 dilemma
The tally of 17 players who have featured in a final this season will rise to 18 on Friday night if Handre Pollard takes the field with Montpellier in the Top 14 showpiece.
Pollard is one of only two fly-halves in the squad of 43, and one of just three who have started under Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus since 2018.
The others are Elton Janjties and Morne Steyn, who retired from international rugby aged 37 after clinching the 2021 Lions series with the winning penalty.
Johan Goosen, whose last Test appearance was in a 2016 defeat against Wales, has been in the preparation camp as he continues his rehabilitation, which suggests he may provide cover at 10 later in the year when he returns.
But in the present, Pollard’s fitness may prove the most important of all.
Since November 2008, 10 of the 15 Tests between Wales and South Africa have been decided by five points or fewer, a sequence which is not lost on Nienaber.
“If you look at our history with Wales and the facts then in my mind at least, I think it will be a tightly contested series,” he said.
Nienaber has also identified that his upcoming opponent may be in the same position as his own team were in four years ago.
“I expect a desperate Welsh side, and not because of where they are,” he added.
“I can’t give an opinion on what is going on in their camp, but we have been desperate before as Springboks when we came back in 2018.
“I know what that feels like and I know that is what we will probably face.”
Respectful words, but South Africa have never lost at home against Wales.
With the opening two Tests of this series being played at altitude, and with home fans back in the stands and the hosts naming such an imposing squad, Pivac’s decision to call the series the “ultimate challenge” is understandable.
That might even turn out to be an understatement.