Welsh pack must stand tall if Boks' rookies are to be tested
6:25am Saturday 14th June 2014 in Sport
MUCH has been made of South Africa's supposed weakness in midfield but it will take a herculean effort from numbers 1 to 8 if Wales are give the rookies a bumpy introduction to Test rugby.
The Springboks have been forced to select inexperienced centres Jan Serfontein and JP Pietersen in Durban (kick-off 4pm).
If the pair have any jitters in the Kings Park home changing room then they will be able to take comfort from a quick glance up to see the hulking figures of Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Willem Alberts and Bismarck du Plessis.
South Africa may have added some guile in recent years and boast a seriously dangerous back three of Bryan Habana, sevens ace Cornal Hendricks and lively full-back Willie le Roux but it's the same old Boks.
They have a record of played 27, won 25, lost one, drawn one against Wales because they are beasts with ball in hand and brutal in defence.
They always field a formidable front eight and they will be marshalled around the field by half-backs Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn.
Yet Wales will head into the game feeling they've got a chance when a few months ago there was the danger of it being a tour from hell.
Head coach Warren Gatland had a lengthy list of absentees – flankers Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, hooker Richard Hibbard, full-back Leigh Halfpenny, centre Scott Williams and fly-half Rhys Priestland along with fringe players Hallam Amos and Rhys Webb – and the regions' failure to make the Pro12 playoffs meant there was a danger of the squad being undercooked.
The New Zealander was another injury or two from it being mission impossible but he will be content with the side that he is able to field for the opener and the only real problem position is openside with Aaron Shingler, usually a blindside, under pressure against scavenger supreme Francois Louw.
He fields a quality tight five that will need to put the squeeze on the Boks at the set piece (no easy task) while Dan Lydiate simply must return to his best form in defence against the hosts' numerous power runners (no easy task).
If – and that's a big if – Wales' pack stand tall then they can keep the game tight through the boot of fly-half Dan Biggar and expose some South African worries.
Wales aren't the only ones suffering from high-profile absentees and Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer said in the build-up that he's been feeling the heat.
"It's definitely been the toughest few weeks for me," he said. "You plan for five months, you can't wait to get going and then suddenly you get curve balls from all over."
Lock Eben Etzebeth is a big miss but midfield is the area that has been causing the Boks boss sleepless nights with captain Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Juan de Jongh and Frans Steyn all unavailable.
He has been forced to plump for Serfontein, an exciting but raw talent, and wing JP Pietersen against seasoned international campaigners Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.
They may be midfield rookies but there are caps galore throughout his team – nine of his 23 were in the squad that won the 2007 World Cup.
Matfield, Botha, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Schalk Burger, Bryan Habana, Pietersen, Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar – all giants of the game.
"Most of the successful teams around the world have many experienced players," said Meyer. "The youth brings enthusiasm to the squad but we need a balance."
Those old heads have never lost to Wales and won't want to ruin their record on their own turf. A hammering isn't on the cards but it's hard to see Wales recording a historic away win.
South Africa: W le Roux, C Hendricks, JP Pietersen, J Serfontein, B Habana, M Steyn, F du Preez, G Steenkamp, B du Plessis, J du Plessis, B Botha, V Matfield (captain), F Louw, W Alberts, D Vermeulen. Replacements: S Brits, T Mtawarira, C Oosthuizen, L de Jager, S Burger, R Pienaar, J Goosen, L Mvovo
Wales: L Williams, A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North, D Biggar, M Phillips, G Jenkins, K Owens, A Jones, L Charteris, AW Jones (captain), D Lydiate, A Shingler, T Faletau. Replacements: M Rees, P James, S Lee, I Evans, J Turnbull, G Davies, J Hook, M Morgan
Referee: Romain Poite (France)