Wales face their toughest task of Wayne Pivac’s coaching reign with a three-Test series against world champions South Africa.
Pivac’s team play in Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town, starting on Saturday at Loftus Versfeld, where they will be greeted by a 50,000 capacity crowd.
Here, the PA news agency looks at some key talking points heading into the game.
Three games against the Springboks in South Africa, with two of those at altitude, provide a fierce examination for Wales. They suffered a chastening 22-21 Guinness Six Nations home defeat against Italy last time out and have never toppled South Africa on home soil, losing all 10 previous encounters. Three of those defeats were in Pretoria – by scorelines of 37-21, 53-18 and 96-13 – which underlines how big a task awaits them. Even though it was eight years ago, Wales can take heart from a one-point loss against the Springboks in Nelspruit on their last visit, with six survivors from that encounter featuring in Pivac’s match-day 23, but South Africa are clear favourites.
It has been a long time coming, but South Africa will play in front of a sold-out home crowd for the first time since they were crowned world champions 32 months ago. The coronavirus pandemic meant last year’s Test series against the British and Irish Lions took place behind closed doors, and demand for Saturday’s clash saw remaining tickets snapped up more than 96 hours before kick-off. The Springboks’ overall record in Pretoria is better than at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, where they won the 1995 World Cup under Francois Pienaar’s captaincy, which underlines Wales’ acute degree of difficulty.
Welsh entertainer Max Boyce wrote a song in the 1970s called The Outside-Half Factory, which reflected Wales’ production line ability to produce world-class number 10s. In more recent times, that prolific output has veered towards openside flankers and personified through players like Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. Now it is the turn of Leicester’s Tommy Reffell, who makes his Test debut just a fortnight after helping the Tigers win their first Gallagher Premiership title for nine years. The 23-year-old delivered a number of immense performances during Leicester’s dominant domestic season, and an international baptism of fire now awaits, but do not be surprised if he thrives.
Wales have been hit hard by injuries during the past 18 months, losing a number of key personnel for long periods, but no-one has arguably been missed more than George North. The juggernaut back suffered a knee injury in April last year, ruling him out of the 2021 Lions tour to South Africa and Wales’ entire autumn and Six Nations schedules this season. Switched with considerable success from wing to outside centre, North offers pace, power and a destructive ball-carrying presence that make him a dynamic force at the highest level. Only Shane Williams has scored more tries for Wales than North, whose return to the Test arena is keenly anticipated.
It is just over 14 months until Wales kick off their World Cup campaign against Fiji in Bordeaux, and a time for selection experimentation is effectively over. The South Africa series is crucial in terms of World Cup aspirations, and there is no doubt that some players will thrive and others are likely to fall by the wayside. Pivac has a number of key performers currently sidelined through injury – players such as Tipuric, Ken Owens, Ross Moriarty and Leigh Halfpenny – who will undoubtedly be added to the mix, but three Tests against the Springboks provide an ideal launch-pad towards events in France next year, even if Wales have to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.