by Ciarán Duffy
Knockout Rugby: You ain’t in Kansas anymore
The pool stages are over, no more losing bonus points, no more ridiculously short turnarounds, no more second chances, four teams are going home after the weekend’s games, and first up, it’s South Africa – Wales.
First a quick look at how they both got this far. South Africa were on the wrong end of the biggest shock in rugby history as they lost by two points to a brilliantly Japanese side (a game which I have already Harped on about). Since that defeat, the Springboks have been relentless, tearing through Samoa and the United States, either side of beating a decent Scottish side. They picked up a try-scoring bonus point in each of their games, as well as a losing bonus point against Japan, on their way to topping pool B with 16 points.
The Welsh had some major injury concerns coming into the world cup, but had a comfortable start to life in the pool stages, putting a big score on Uruguay in their first game. Things got a lot tougher very fast as the Welsh had to face hosts England the next week. Despite accumulating more injuries the Welsh edged out England by three points. A solid performance against Fiji saw them secure their place in the knockout rounds, however they failed to take their chances against Australia and finished as runners-up in pool A.
This will only be the second time the sides have met at a world cup. South Africa beat Wales in pool D of the 2011 tournament. Wales would ultimately progress further by making it to the semi-finals. Wales and South Africa met twice in 2014, South Africa won their two home games in the summer, but Wales won the Autumn international in Cardiff.
There are two records that could potentially be broken in this game. The first one, if Wales were to win here they will become the first Northern Hemisphere side to knock the Springboks out of a World Cup. The second record? The small matter of Bryan Habana claiming the all time World Cup try-scoring record for himself, he is currently level on 15 with Jonah Lomu.
South Africa’s early loss has only served as motivation, they have been relentless in their three games since. The Springboks have been playing like a team who has taken a loss to heart and is doing everything they can to redeem themselves. Wales on the other hand, have been more about survival and resilience, making it through the pool of death despite a mountain of injuries. Momentum plays a large part in any tournament, and as of last week, South Africa have more of it.
So how will this game be decided? There are a few battles around the pitch. The fly-half position is one area where Wales do have an advantage. Handre Pollard is still relatively green and prone to making mistakes. The experience of Fourie du Preez will help him, but he will be targeted by the Welsh. Dan Biggar has only missed one of his 16 kicks so far and it is crucial that he is on hand to convert any opportunities that come his way.
South Africa struggled against Japan because they did not get to the breakdown quick enough. The Brave Blossoms were able to recycle the ball very quickly and change the point of attack, South Africa could not handle this. The breakdown is going to be key in this game, which means Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau will be key for Wales. Lydiate needs to be his usual solid as a rock self at the breakdown, with Warburton being there using that leg drive of his to force a turn over. Faletau is important in terms of stamina, he has a good engine in him and that will be crucial in the latter stages of the match. If Dan Lydiate can use his chop tackle to good effect he will cause the Springboks all kinds of problems. Regardless of that, if Francois Louw, Schalk Burger and Bismarck du Plessis are playing to their usual standards, South Africa should be able to win this battle. Louw and Burger both made crucial turnovers against Japan, and the way Burger barged over the line against Scotland and Samoa really shows his game changing physical presence. There is more power on the bench for South Africa with Strauss proving to be a terrific impact sub. This physicality will be a game-changer against an already injury hit Welsh side, who have had a shorter turn-around.
The Welsh back three have not exactly been firing, with Cuthbert being somewhat of a disappointment. Gareth Anscombe was poor last week, although it was his first game. Pietersen and Habana on the other hand, have been electric with a total of 9 tries between them. There will be plenty of others in the spotlight as well. Luke Charteris is a key man for Wales in the line out and it will be interesting to see how he fairs with all 6ft 8 of Eben Etzebeth. Duane Vermeulen hasn’t hit his peak yet after his neck surgery, but the World Cup would be a fitting stage to return to his best form. It will also be intriguing to see how Tyler Morgan gets on in what is surely the biggest game of his career.
My prediction would be that this is a close game for 50-60 minutes but South Africa begin to pull away after that. If the Welsh are to win, it is crucial that they avoid any more injuries, and they will need to have built a lead by halftime, they can’t afford to be left chasing the Springboks. South Africa have the momentum and the physicality to see off this depleted Welsh team, that little bit more in the tank will ultimately decide the game.
South Africa to win by a margin of around 12, without the Welsh necessarily being 12 points worse throughout the contest.
The game kicks off at 4pm on Saturday, and is at Twickenham.
Ciarán Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously. He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field.
15. W Le Roux 14. JP Pietersen 13. J Kriel 12. D De Allende 11. Bryan Habana 10. H Pollard 9. F Du Preez (C)
8. D Vermeulen 7. S Burger 6. F Louw 5. L De Jager 4. E Etzebeth 3. F Malherbe 2. B Du Plesses 1. T Mtawarira
Replacements: A Strauss, T Nyakane, J Du Plessis, P Du Toit, W Alberts, R Pienaar, P Lambie, I Serfontein
15. G Anscomber 14. A Cuthbert 13. T Morgan 12. J Roberts 11. G North 10. D Biggar 9. G Davies
8. T Faletau 7. S Warburton (C) 6. Dan Lydiate 5. AW Jones 4. L Charters 3. S Lee 2. S Baldwin1. G Jenkins
Replacements: K Owens, P James, T Francis, B Davies, J Tipuric, L Williams, R Priestland, J Hook
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