Rob Howley: "Battle-hardened" Wales ready for South Africa challenge
Rob Howley has no doubt that Wales are battle-hardened and ready for the latest punishing instalment of their demanding Rugby World Cup schedule on Saturday.
After facing England and Australia, games that were sandwiched by a bruising encounter against Fiji, Wales will now encounter arguably the most physical team of all - quarter-final opponents and twice world champions South Africa.
But Wales have kept coming back for more, despite losing almost a fifth of their original World Cup squad through injury.
Leigh Halfpenny, Scott Williams, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Hallam Amos and Cory Allen have all been ruled out at various stages, with Ospreys wing Eli Walker the latest player called up on Tuesday, although he will not be available for selection this week after recently shaking off an injury.
Wales have overcome considerable odds to reach the last eight for a second successive World Cup campaign, and Wales assistant coach Howley said: "Warren Gatland (Wales head coach) always had a saying at Wasps when I was playing under him, that we are battle-hardened.
"We've come through the last few weeks after really tough games against tier one nations, and Fiji cannot be underestimated - they were extremely physical and tough - and that gives us a really good platform.
"We have been playing at an intensity week in, week out, that will prepare us no end for what will come on Saturday.
"It's knockout football, a quarter-final to look forward to. If you had said to us six or eight weeks ago, 'would you take a quarter-final against South Africa?' Of course you would.
"Injuries are part and parcel of the game. We've had our fair few, but we keep on saying, the players that are available to us, we trust them and they are giving us 100 per cent."
Gatland will name his team on Thursday to face the Springboks, but Howley has suggested that George North will return to the wing following an appearance at outside centre against Australia, with Tyler Morgan and James Hook vying for number 13 duties.
"Both George and Alex (Cuthbert) will likely be on the wings," Howley added.
"If you look at South African strengths and the way they play the game, it's an aerial battle, and we've decided that George and Alex will be the best wings to negate that threat.
"When you look at the experience in their backline, with Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen, who is back from injury, it's a case of trying to match that experience and strength with what we've got.
"Tyler had a slight injury last week, so we've got the option of either him or James coming into the centre.
"Eli is not available for selection this weekend. He's just got back over the last injury which he had when we released him. He will be available if needed for the following week."
While Wales lost 16 times on the bounce to South Africa between 2000 and 2014, recent history suggests they can go about their business with a quiet degree of confidence this week.
Wales were pipped by 31-30 by a late converted penalty try in Nelspruit last year, then they beat South Africa at the Millennium Stadium 11 months ago.
Howley added: "Having looked at South Africa over the last four or five weeks, the Japan loss refocused where they were at.
"In my experience, and the players' experience, every time we have played against South Africa it has been a very physical, attritional, uncompromising game, and it is going to be no different on Saturday.
"The day of the second Test against South Africa last year was unbelievable in terms of how we started that game. We went up by 14-0 then 17-0, and then we all know what happened in the last 10 minutes of that game.
"It gives you a lot of self-belief and confidence, because we were in their backyard."