Wales v South Africa
Paul Hayward: Victory would be a truly fitting end for coach and captain
Warren Gatland says he is delighted that Wales have been cast as underdogs for their World Cup semi-final against South Africa tomorrow, using his final press conference before arguably the biggest match in the country’s history to encourage any doubters to “continue to write us off ” as that will only make his side stronger.
While the build-up to the second last-four clash in Yokohama has lacked the pyrotechnics of today’s first, with Gatland and opposite number Rassie Erasmus playing far nicer than England’s Eddie Jones and New Zealand’s Steve Hansen, the tension has belatedly started to ratchet up.
Gatland threw a mischievous curveball into proceedings yesterday when he brought up a hitherto unnoticed, off-the-ball incident involving Springboks No 8 Duane Vermeulen.
There is little that can be done about it now, with the window for citings having passed, but by bringing it up, Gatland drew attention to something South Africa would doubtless have preferred to keep out of the public domain.
It has been a tense 48 hours. Injuries to key players Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa) and Liam Williams (Wales) have been late dramas for both camps, although the fact that Gatland was able to name outside centre Jonathan Davies in his team yesterday gave Wales momentum heading into the game.
The British and Irish Lion has been suffering with a knee injury sustained in the pool stages. His inclusion means Wales have their defensive talisman back ahead of what promises to be a hugely physical encounter against the Boks.
Aside from Davies coming in for Owen Watkin, there were only two other changes to the Wales team that faced France last Sunday.
Leigh Halfpenny replaces Williams, who has been ruled out of next weekend’s final should Wales progress – no replacement has yet been called up – and No 8 Ross Moriarty comes in for Josh Navidi, who likewise has been ruled out of the rest of the tournament.
Gatland was phlegmatic about the injuries, saying Wales were considering starting with Halfpenny at full-back anyway. “At this stage, you are always going to lose a couple of quality players,” he said. “And in them losing Kolbe and us losing Liam Williams, it’s probably one each in terms of that.
“[Williams] is undoubtedly a big loss from an attacking perspective and what he has achieved in the game in the last year or so.
“But bringing in the experience of someone like Leigh Halfpenny gives us a different element. He is probably the best full-back in the
‘I have got two games to go as the Wales coach and I want to enjoy them’
world in terms of his aerial game and coverage defensively. We had a long debate about whether we started Leigh in the first place and potentially move Liam to the wing.”
Speaking at the team’s hotel in downtown Tokyo, with veteran captain Alun Wyn Jones sitting alongside him, Gatland’s final words were part rallying cry, part nostalgia-fest as he looked ahead to tomorrow’s game, and back at an incredible 12-year stretch which has yielded Six Nations grand slams and wins over every country bar New Zealand, a record he admitted he would “love” to correct.
Gatland, who departs his post at the conclusion of the World Cup, said he did not at all mind being cast as underdogs against a huge South Africa team, who have enjoyed a smoother path to this point.
“I am excited about [the match],” he insisted. “I’m more looking forward to this game than I was last week, and more confident about this game than we probably were against France.”
The bookmakers disagree. Wales are fourth-favourites to win the tournament, their odds as long as 12-1 with some bookmakers. South Africa, meanwhile, are second-favourites, behind New Zealand.
Gatland questioned those odds, noting Wales’s recent record against the Boks which reads four games, four wins. Wales also have an uncanny ability to win tight games, having won a record five World Cup matches by a single point.
“The nice thing about being out here is that you are kind of in a bubble,” he said. “But if they continue to do that [describe Wales as underdogs] over the next couple of days that would be brilliant. Please continue to do that as it does get us up when people write us off. I can’t understand why people write us off when our record against South Africa has been pretty good in the last four or five years.
“It is going to be a tight game. It will probably be a kicking-fest. They kicked 30 times against Japan, so we have got to be ready to handle that. It won’t be the prettiest game in the world. It will be a tight Test match with probably teams playing for territory, depending on what the weather is like.
“I have got two games to go as the Wales coach and I want to enjoy these last two games. And there are probably nine or 10 players who won’t be involved in another World Cup as well, so they have got to relish that opportunity and be excited about this.”