Wales v South Africa is the first of the four titanic struggles this weekend that are the RWC quarter finals.
These two teams are no strangers to each other, having met on 30 occasions since their first encounter in 1906.
However, the wins column is very much in favour of South Africa, having won 27 of those games, Wales winning 2 and the teams drawing one.
This weekend’s quarter final is anything but a foregone conclusion though, despite the devastating injury toll that Wales has taken, they have shown they can rally together and win tough, tight matches.
Let’s take a look at what both teams need to do to win, and also have a look at the key players and their roles.
The Welsh forward pack have shown they are capable of matching it with some of the biggest and best. They also have some of the biggest and best, with players like Captain Sam Warburton and veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones. They will need to continue to be competitive in the tight again this weekend, as it is no secret that South Africa will try to bully them up front.
In saying that, the Welsh are one of the best teams at this years RWC when it comes to turning the ball over at breakdowns, sitting 2nd in the tournament and with 12 more turnovers than South Africa. If they can continue their fast approach at the breakdowns, they can get in and out of the contact area’s before the big South Africans can arrive.
The Welsh First-Five, Dan Biggar, has been in sensational form this tournament. Most recognisable for his peculiar goal kicking technique, don’t let his “Macarena” fool you, he has been controlling his team tactically all tournament.
He has had several combinations outside him due to the injuries but he still ignites his big wingers, giving them space and time to be at their best.
His goal kicking has been radar like too, kicking at 94% and putting over 12 penalties. If South Africa give away penalties in range, money’s on Biggar to knock it over.
What can be said about this man? Becoming a professional Rugby player at the age of 17, he clearly showed talent at a young age. He had only 4 test matches under his belt before been thrown into the mix at this year’s RWC due to the injury to first choice halfback, Rhys Webb.
He took this opportunity with both hands and is one of the best halfback’s at the tournament so far. He has carried his team at times with his energetic running and snipping around the rucks. This has lead to 7 clean breaks, 9 defenders beaten and 4 tries, one of which was the winning try against England.
These stats easily clear him as the best attacking halfback at the tournament and if he can bring this fantastic attacking game to the quarter final, it will put Wales in a great position to tire out the bigger South African team.
With the injury to Victor Matfield, it almost comes as a blessing in disguise as it allows Coach Heyneke Meyer to play his 2 best locks in Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jagger. The only word that can describe these 2 is dominant.
Eben Etzebeth at 2.04m and 117kg has really exerted his physical dominance at this tournament, he has carried the ball 18 times over the gain line and these carries have often been in scrappy tight situations.
His fellow locking partner, Lood de Jagger has been immense at this year’s RWC. The statistics columns almost always feature his name and he is almost always the player getting his team on the front foot, whether it is from a huge tackle (he’s made the 2nd most in the tournament with 50) or a big carry (he’s made 21 over the gain line) you can count on him to step up. His work rate is just enormous; he seems to pop up all over the field.
Wales will have to shut these 2 down. They have shown they can do this, David Pocock almost had no impact on the game last week, however Australia still won the contest. This will be a key area of the game.
You can put to bed any myth that South Africa plays “boring 10 man rugby”, this team have been brilliant at this tournament, igniting their backline and beating defenders. They have carried the ball third most in the tournament, and almost half of those carries are over the gain line, a far cry from a team that plays territory over possession.
It is vital that the Welsh make their tackles, this may seem obvious but South Africa feed off line breaks and beating defenders, they have made 38 line breaks so far, 3rd in the tournament and from these types of carriers they finish off in brilliant fashion, scoring 23 tries, only 2 behind the All Blacks.
Bryan Habana is top try scorer in the tournament with 5, and a hat trick to go with it. He now is equal with the great Jonah Lomu for most tries scored in RWC history, 15.
If South Africa can continue this style of rugby, then Wales will have to look to control possession to negate these attacking threats.
This will be one of the biggest games of Jamie Robert’s career. He has a wealth of experience boasting more test caps than the other 3 midfield players put together, with 73 games for Wales he will need to be the calming influence to his younger centre pairing, Tyler Morgan who at 20yrs old only has 2 test caps. If Robert’s can use this experience to manipulate the young South African pairing, Wales then have a great chance at unleashing their far bigger wing combination.
The South African midfield however, is almost as raw as Morgan. Damien De Allende and Jesse Kriel have just 18 caps between them, but have been devastating when given half a yard of space. Both players love to take the ball into contact, often beating defenders and freeing up the fast outside backs.
It is a clash of youth versus experience and is a key component of this quarter-final matchup.
Gareth Davies vs Fourie du Preez.
This might seem like an odd matchup to look into, however the halfbacks have been vital in this RWC, they are the key to the game, either slowing the pace down or speeding it up.
Gareth Davies as I alluded to before loves to run. He sparks the Welsh attack with his unpredictability and brilliant step.
Du Preez on the other hand, is far more measured; he reads the game brilliantly and can dictate the pace of his sides attack. He also has a great box kick which takes a lot of pressure off his First-Five. Look for him to use this at key times in the game, often to push the Welsh back and make them bring the ball forward into the big South African forward pack.
With a heavy injury toll and some tough, physical matches it is easy to write off Wales. But we have seen in the past injuries often bring a team closer together; they fight for each other and thrive off the underdog status. If Wales can do this then this game is going to be an epic battle.
On the other hand, the early loss to Japan hurt the South African’s, they are a very proud nation and I think that that was the huge wakeup call the team needed. Since that loss they have been absolutely brilliantly and you would be hard pressed to see this juggernaut being stopped so early in the knock-out stages.
South Africa to win this win by a relatively slim margin 26-17.
Let the knockout Rugby begin!