The Rassie Erasmus coaching era started against Wales in June‚ and his first season at the Springbok helm will end against the same opponents in Cardiff on Saturday‚ to neatly bookend five months of consistent growth.
The Boks are aiming to end a three-match losing streak against Wales in Cardiff when they meet at the Principality Stadium on Saturday‚ but more importantly they’re trying to claim a second top three-ranked scalp this season.
Wales‚ currently ranked third in the world‚ are on an eight-match winning run and loom as an opponent against whom victory would be a major notch in the belt for the Boks.
Erasmus’s callow Boks produced a sensational performance to beat the top-ranked All Blacks in Wellington in September and nearly did it again three weeks later in Pretoria.
Adding a win over Wales to their list of successes this year would undoubtedly make this a season where the team returned to the top table of the sport after two years of collecting scraps off the floor.
It could be contended that they have already done that regardless of Saturday’s result after seven wins and six defeats.
Four of those losses have been by five points and fewer while there was a series win over England and that magic upset in Wellington. The first hour in Pretoria and the first 40 minutes at Twickenham‚ where the Boks had New Zealand and England on the ropes respectively‚ was also a sign of the team’s potential.
A win over Wales would confirm it after wins over France and Scotland on tour.
Erasmus has named an unchanged starting XV after last week’s 26-20 win over Scotland at Murrayfield‚ which is the first time this year he has been able to that.
The only change to the squad sees lock Eben Etzebeth return to the bench in place of Lood de Jager.
The need to win this match and take momentum into next year outweighed any considerations of using fringe players who have toured without an opportunity. Winning is a far better way to grow a team than experimentation and Erasmus didn’t want to tinker with a winning squad.
When the sides met in June‚ in Washington‚ the Bok team included 13 uncapped players. It was a fixture that the bean counters at both SA Rugby and the Wales Rugby Union (WRU) authorised purely for financial gain.
Despite the makeshift nature of the Bok team that day‚ they ran a more experienced Welsh side close‚ losing 22-20 in torrential rain thanks largely to their own errors.
But it’s difficult to look at that result and try and find some context for this match‚ as both sides are vastly different from those that played in Washington.
There are nine Welsh survivors from Washington in the match 23 this weekend while there are only seven Boks from that 23.
Wales have been under coach Warren Gatland for a decade and have bred an experienced squad of over 30 players. Their parts are interchangeable in many ways‚ which is a result of 10 years under the guidance of one man slowly building his team.
Wales have few weaknesses and after four wins in their last five meetings with the Boks they have no mental problems against SA either.
The home team will be quietly confident again‚ and after beating Australia two weeks ago for their first win over the Wallabies in 10 years‚ another bogey has been eradicated. It’s no wonder Erasmus claimed this would be the toughest match on tour.
The Boks are a long way behind in terms of consistency in selection and experience‚ but there is a sense of continuity with Erasmus’s team‚ which the unchanged selection confirms.
The pack has been superb all year notwithstanding some bad lineout days when hooker Malcolm Marx seemed to have his radar scrambled.
Defensively the Boks haven’t been watertight but they have been a lot more consistent on the current tour. Occasionally they still get caught a little narrow‚ but their scrambling defence has been a good sign of the team’s desire to play for each other.
If the pack‚ which has a more balanced back row with Duane Vermeulen back at No 8 and Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi on the flanks‚ can edge the tight exchanges‚ the Boks have the ability to score tries. Creating chances hasn’t been a problem‚ finishing them consistently has been the issue.
In just about every match this year the Boks have carved out enough opportunities to put games away. Only their own wastefulness‚ through impatience and too much urgency‚ have cost them many more tries.
But there is a feeling they are going to put an 80-minute performance together at some stage in the coming year‚ and when they do‚ someone is going to be on the receiving end of a big hiding. Could it be this weekend?
Wales: 15 Liam Williams‚ 14 George North 13 Jonathan Davies 12 Hadleigh Parkes 11 Josh Adams 10 Gareth Anscombe 9 Gareth Davies‚ 8 Ross Moriarty‚ 7 Justin Tipuric‚ 6 Dan Lydiate‚ 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c)‚ 4 Adam Beard‚ 3 Tomas Francis‚ 2 Ken Owens‚ 1 Nicky Smith.
Subs: 16 Elliot Dee‚ 17 Rob Evans‚ 18 Dillon Lewis‚ 19 Cory Hill‚ 20 Ellis Jenkins‚ 21 Tomos Williams‚ 22 Dan Biggar‚ 23 Owen Watkin.
South Africa– 15 Willie le Roux‚ 14 S’bu Nkosi‚ 13 Jesse Kriel‚ 12 Damian de Allende‚ 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi‚ 10 Handre Pollard‚ 9 Embrose Papier‚ 8 Duane Vermeulen‚ 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit‚ 6 Siya Kolisi (captain)‚ 5 Franco Mostert‚ 4 RG Snyman‚ 3 Frans Malherbe‚ 2 Malcolm Marx‚ 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi‚ 17 Thomas du Toit‚ 18 Vincent Koch‚ 19 Eben Etzebeth‚ 20 Francois Louw‚ 21 Ivan van Zyl‚ 22 Elton Jantjies‚ 23 Cheslin Kolbe.