CARDIFF – Injury-hit Wales’ decision to play a fourth Test outside the international release window was a “balancing act”, coach Warren Gatland said ahead of Saturday’s match against South Africa.
Thoughts about an unprecedented third successive home victory over the Springboks seem to have taken a back seat as Gatland struggles to juggle his squad for his team’s fourth autumn game.
Other Six Nations teams play just three. “It’s a balancing act,” admitted Gatland.
“The fourth international generates a lot of money, and we have got to be aware of that.
“Part of the (Welsh rugby) union’s responsibility is helping to fund the regions, contracts for the players, the community game. We’re aware of that.”
Gatland said he had to focus on the positives the hosting of a fourth game threw up.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to play against the best teams in the world. I have always been a strong believer that the only way you get better is by playing against the best players and teams,” said the Kiwi, in charge of Wales since 2008.
Gatland acknowledged, however, that the autumn series of matches had been “a bit of a challenge” given the number of injuries in the squad already missing Sam Warburton and winger George North.
The match against the Springboks has been further hit by player unavailability because of commitments to English clubs.
“It has been hard,” said Gatland, with his side boasting just eight survivors from the starting line-up beaten 29-21 by Australia on November 11.
“I think we’ve had 11 injuries, or something like that, in this campaign. It has been tough from a playing perspective.
“We haven’t done anything differently, but unfortunately, we’ve picked up quite a few injuries. I think we are down to about 25 from the original squad (of 36) we selected.
“It’s been a bit of a challenge.”
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones described the fourth Test as a “blessing, but a curse”, with players facing a quick turnaround into European club rugby just a week later.
But Springbok coach Allister Coetzee said it gave invaluable game time to up-and-coming squad members.
“In some ways, it’s a massive positive for us. Outside the window, you’re losing players. But you need to give players a chance to play,” Coetzee said.
“It’s impossible not to give players enough Tests before the next World Cup. Therefore it has a place outside the window, but not necessarily against top unions,
“Home Nations, maybe a Tier Two nation would have been ideal, but the fact there is exposure for some players at international level is definitely relevant.”
Gatland conceded that his longer-range view was also firmly set on the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
“If we are in this situation come the World Cup, then we have got players with caps and experience under their belts,” he said. “I think that’s important for us, going forward.”