Durban - In just over a year’s time, the Springboks will head to Paris to defend the Webb Ellis Cup and coach Jacques Nienaber is quite right when he says the road to France starts on Saturday in Pretoria, when the first of three Tests against Wales gets under way.
Nienaber argues that the first half of 2023 is written off to polishing up your preparations before you get to the actual event, and that the real hard graft is done the year before – problem areas are addressed, and depth is grown in each position so you know exactly what the pecking order is, and all of this is done while engendering momentum and belief by winning your games.
With this in mind, the month of July is significant for most of the countries in the top 10, because we have the traditional northern hemisphere expeditions to the southern strongholds.
Also playing three-Test series against Rugby Championship sides are Ireland, who play the All Blacks on Saturday; England on the same day play Australia, while Argentina is hosting Scotland.
That adds up to a bumper day of top-rate rugby and, as usual, the southern powerhouses are all tipped to win.
In New Zealand, the All Blacks are gearing themselves up for revenge after losing to Ireland last November; likewise, the Wallabies are waiting with licked lips after getting a smack at Twickenham in their last outing; and then there is a Springbok side that everybody is expecting to annihilate Wales.
I am not one of them. I will be surprised if the Boks lose, but I will not be flabbergasted if Wales wins their first-ever match on South African soil.
Wales have been written off on account of the under-performance of their four teams in the URC, but quite often a national team is better than the sum of its provincial parts. I recall in 1998 the four SA teams were poor in Super Rugby, but Nick Mallett was able to pick the best players from those sides and weld them into a Bok team that won the Tri-Nations and began a world record-equalling streak of wins.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac only has to assemble 23 international class players for a dangerous match-day squad, and he has more than that number, including a host of British and Irish Lions who were in this country a year ago, making life very prickly for the Springboks – Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Josh Adams, Josh Navidi, George North, Louis Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams, Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau, Wyn Jones … the list of vastly experienced players goes on.
Also, the point that no Welsh teams made the URC playoffs has strong benefits in that Pivac has had his entire squad for well over a month. He has been drilling them into shape and whipping up their underdog status, while counterpart Nienaber will only have his full squad from tomorrow, when flyhalf Handre Pollard arrives from French champions Montpellier.
Obviously, the success of the Bulls and Stormers in the URC meant their Bok players only joined the camp this past week.
My advice that South Africans temper their expectations of the Springboks on Saturday is also based on historical precedent – the Boks are notoriously slow starters to the international season. They are never good in the first game they play and then, after criticism, they get their act together.
Allied to this is the rock-solid fact that the Springboks almost always perform poorly when they are hot favourites. They are uncomfortable with expectation and prefer a backs-against-the-wall mentality.
On this note, it was interesting this week to hear Wales lock Adam Beard describe the mood in the Welsh camp on their arrival in Johannesburg.
“I think we work best when we are actually underdogs,” Beard said.
“Nobody has given us a chance of beating South Africa. As the Welsh nation, we thrive under those circumstances.
“We were three points away from beating South Africa and being in a World Cup final three years ago, and last autumn we were unlucky not to get a victory.
“They are big men who are very direct and they come hard at you. We know our set-piece has got to be on point, and definitely the physicality part of the game. We have got to take it head-on to them.
“Last week, we had a bit of a hit-out with a referee coming in. We had two teams of 15 going at it live in all our different game scenarios, and it got a bit testy and lively,” Beard said.
“The feeling is we have no better opportunity to prove a point to everyone who is doubting us.”