World champions they may be, but South Africa play Six Nations champions Wales in Cardiff on Saturday desperate to make up for a poor Tri-Nations that saw them win only two of their six games.
Almost 13 months on from their 15-6 World Cup final win over England in Paris, it has not all been plain sailing for the Springboks, now coached by Peter de Villiers and not the erstwhile Jake White.
But De Villiers, who earned his coaching stripes in Wales in the mid-1990s, sees this tour, in which his team will also play Scotland and England, as the perfect occasion to land an early psychlogical blow before next summer’s British and Irish Lions’ visit to South Africa.
“With the Lions heading to South Africa in a just a few months these Tests are as important as any we have undertaken since our re-admission (to international rugby) in 1992,” he said.
While starting with wins at the beginning of the season against Wales and Italy, De Villiers saw the Boks lose four of their six Tri-Nations Tests, but also record a first-ever win against New Zealand in Dunedin and then finish the competition with a record 53-8 victory over Australia in Johannesburg.
Eleven of the starting side who won the second Test against Wales 37-21 in Pretoria in the summer will start this time around.
But De Villiers has overlooked Bath’s Butch James (opting for Ruan PIenaar – picture), Toulon’s Joe van Niekerk and Leinster’s CJ van der Linde, preferring to plump for home-based players who featured in the Tri-Nations and Currie Cup.
For Wales, the match is a chance to improve on their woeful record against South Africa.
They have won only once in 22 matches over 104 years of competition, a Graham Henry-coached side claiming a 29-19 victory in the inaugural game at the Millennium Stadium in 1999.
“Looking at the record, history doesn’t suggest we are going to win all the matches,” said assistant coach Shaun Edwards, speaking of the Springbok challenge and Wales’ back-to-back games against New Zealand and Australia to round off the November internationals.
“I think history is very important but it cannot totally determine your future.
“I think we need to use the old cliche ‘one game at a time’.
“We will think about South Africa first and I would like to think it will be best foot forward from here.” De Villiers admitted that he expected Saturday’s match to be the “toughest of the three because it is the first match”.
“Wales have one of the world’s best coaches in Warren Gatland and one of the most passionate fan bases in the game.” Bok captain John Smit, who will play prop instead of his usual hooking role, added that the home side would be confident of turning the tables on the Boks because of their improved performance in the second Test in the summer.
“They will fancy their chances,” said Smit. “We are not expecting things to just happen for us in this Test. We know they will measure their season as a success by what they achieve this weekend. We know how important this Test is to them.” One player seeking a dream international debut will be Cardiff Blues’ teenage winger Leigh Halfpenny, who will find himself lined up against the explosive Bryan Habana.
Wales’ other winger, the highly-accomplished veteran Shane Williams, had a word of advice for his 19-year-old compatriot.
“I would tell Leigh just go out and play his own game, don’t get intimidated by the day and don’t worry about who you’re playing against,” Williams said.
“You’re playing international rugby and whoever you play against is very good – and I’m sure he won’t.” Williams added: “It’s nice that South Africa are coming to Cardiff now with a very strong squad, a very strong side.
“It just goes to show what this game means to them, but I think it may just mean a little bit more to us.
“We’ve got a point to prove really and we’re looking forward to it.”