Wales often talk the talk, but don’t have the results to show for it
T WAS here in Cardiff three years ago that I got to experience the feeling of having a big prop forward flame over with anger to the point that for a brief moment you fear for your health.
It was at an early morning radio breakfast show hosted by Radio Wales and the prop in question was Peter Rogers, a former Welsh international who also played some of his rugby in South Africa.
The line that I uttered that Rogers took umbrage to was the following: “All I’ve heard while sitting here for the past 20 minutes is how big, strong and ferocious the Welsh forwards are, and I hear it every time I come here, yet invariably it’s the South African forwards who turn out to be the big and ferocious ones. You guys have only ever beaten us once, and there must be a reason for that.”
Okay, it made for good radio, or so I was told by the Radio Wales people (I note though that they haven’t invited me back for a rerun this year), and Rogers wasn’t really going to hit me. On the contrary, we had a good laugh afterwards. But what was said was nonetheless honest – when it comes to rugby this place always seems to be full of huff and puff, and predictions of great worlds that are set to be conquered, but the bark is rarely translated into bite of any substance.
The only time the Welsh had in fact bitten the Boks properly was in 1999, when I sometimes get reminded by those who were part of it that a story carried under my byline on the front page of the Cape Times played a pivotal role in deflecting the South African focus.
To refresh memories, that game was played in the week when the coach Nick Mallett had sounded off to a reporter (yes, it was me) that he was not going to be dictated to by politicians and told who he could or couldn’t select to his team.
Unfortunately, as Mallett became all too aware of later, politicians don’t like to be told that they can’t dictate things, and they love having a say in matters they know absolutely nothing about. Rian Oberholzer was on the phone to me at sparrow on the day that Cape Times story, under the heading “Mallett married to merit”, was run, just to check up that I had quoted Mallett accurately.
As I know the pressure he was under I will always defend Oberholzer, but there can’t be any denying that his angry meeting with the coaches and players just two days before the Test, where they were effectively made to feel that their places were in jeopardy if they didn’t accept certain realities, played a big part in robbing Gary Teichmann’s men of their focus.
The upshot was a 29- 19 defeat that remains the only blemish on the South African
Irecord against Wales. If you consider that the rivalry extends back to 1906, and that, like South Africa, this is a nation that treats rugby union like it is a religion, that is quite a record.
Yet it hasn’t stopped the Welsh confidence, and the local media are in some ways similar to the Cape media in the way they seem to always find a way to make their team the favourites even when sometimes logic suggests otherwise.
Of course, there is good reason for it this time. The British and Irish Lions team that won the recent series against Australia was made up mainly of Welshmen. And Wales did make the semifinals of the last World Cup, whereas the Springboks had to exit in the quarter-finals.
Wales coach Warren Gatland, a Kiwi who also coached Ireland to South Africa in 1998, is perennially confident, and maybe former Bok coach Peter de Villiers had a point when he said in his autobiography that Gatland perhaps makes a mistake when he talks the Boks down to his team. While Gatland makes the Boks out to be less than they are, De Villiers reckons that what the Welsh need is to be told the opposite, that they are up against one of the best teams in the world, and will have to play really well to win.
If De Villiers is right, and Gatland has been drawing on the Lions’ win over Australia for his team’s inspiration, then Wales could be in trouble for there is one thing we can tell him without any risk of contradiction – right now the Boks are in a different league to the Wallabies.
Two massive wins over the Aussies tell us as much, and I don’t really buy into any theory that the tries the Wallabies scored in a recent highscoring Barbarians-type running festival that was passed off as the final Bledisloe Cup Test meant that there was any sign of an imminent Wallaby resurgence.
The Boks, like New Zealand, are a step up from Australia, and as so much of the Welsh effort hinges on passion and testosterone, Jean de Villiers’ team need to make their statement early in today’s match. If they do that, and rough up the Welsh forwards with their physical game, I fancy I will be writing a similar column to this one when I next visit this city for a Bok/Wales match…