Cardiff – The Springboks arrived in the Welsh capital on Sunday fully aware of the ambush that awaits them at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday in the form of a Wales team that approximates the British and Irish Lions side that smacked the Wallabies in June.
There were 10 Welsh players in the Lions’ starting XV for the decisive third Test and the coach was Warren Gatland, who is also in charge of Wales.
Gatland, a proud New Zealander, is sick and tired of his Wales team’s appalling record against the former Tri-Nations teams. While Wales tend to rise to the challenge in the Six Nations and have won it two years in a row now, their success rate in the annual November matches against the touring New Zealand, South African and Australian teams is a joke.
If you include Wales’ away games in the southern hemisphere, they have lost 22 of their last 23 matches against these teams, the last win being against the Wallabies in Cardiff in 2008. They have subsequently lost eight in a row to the Wallabies, 13 in a row to the Boks (their sole win in 26 matches since 1906 was in 1999), and they have had 25 consecutive defeats to the All Blacks since winning in 1956.
But Gatland is hoping his squad has turned the corner in terms of self-belief after having provided the Lions share of the players in the thrilling series against the Wallabies in June. Sixteen Welsh players featured for the Lions during the tour – 10 in the record 41-16 thrashing in the series clincher in Sydney.
“I think those players involved would have gained a huge amount of confidence from the tour,” said Gatland. “They all came away with a lot of credit. They were in great shape physically and a lot of those players were key components in the Test side. The players now know they can beat these southern hemisphere teams. And the last time we played the Boks, we were unlucky to lose.”
The coach is referring to the 17-16 defeat to the Boks in a Pool match at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in Wellington.
In the dying minutes, a drop goal from Welsh flyhalf Rhys Priestland shaved an upright, and the Boks hung on for a fortuitous win.
Wales went on to make the semi-finals, where they lost 9-8 to France after having had to play an hour of the game with 14 men when captain Sam Warburton was red-carded for foul play.
Prior to that 2011 encounter, the last three matches between Wales and South Africa were in Cardiff, with the Boks narrow victors each time – 29-25, 34-31 and 20-15.
“These games tend to go right down to the wire,” Gatland said. “We have led into the last couple of minutes, only to have the heartbreak at the end but I’m a great believer in learning from those scenarios.
“The players who went through those experiences have developed from it and a prime example was the performance in the last game of the Six Nations against England in Cardiff (in March), where they played so well (to thump England by 25 points and secure the Championship),” he said.
“It will be great for the team to be back at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, back in front of their home fans and to return to the scene of where they clinched the Six Nations title earlier this year. And now we must kick on ... we have the players to be a big threat at the 2015 World Cup, but we have to start beating the big teams.”
Meanwhile, the Boks arrived in cold and rainy Cardiff after taking a bus trip from London’s Heathrow Airport.
“We’re very excited to be here and we are looking forward to the challenge of playing three very tough Test matches on this tour,” said captain Jean de Villiers. “At this stage, we’re not looking past the Wales Test, which promises to be an epic match. We had three hard days of training in Johannesburg before we left, but the weather was warm and sunny.
“As we drove into Wales, it started raining and we’re expecting similar conditions this week. We’ll adapt to the weather. We want to go out there and play positive, attacking rugby.”