Rugby is a game encompassing multiple scores of varying degrees accrued through various means. Five for a try, three for a drop-goal, a full seven for a penalty try. But more than that, rugby is a game of unsettled scores. Of grudges collected and locked away like some fermenting sourdough starter. Contests won or lost are not simply viewed as the singular event that they are, but are placed within a broader narrative that encompasses sweeping histories.
There are more than a few strands of unfinished business hanging in the balance as South Africa take the field at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday with both teams eager to balance their respective ledgers.
Siya Kolisi’s team arrived in Wales this week having not won in the country since 2013. They’ve lost each of their last four visits to Cardiff and also lost the 2018 friendly in Washington DC which was the first game of the Rassie Erasmus era.
“We know where we went wrong,” Kolisi said on Friday, emphasising his commitment to address a blight on his nation’s record. “There have been games where we were totally beaten. We know what we need to do. We’ve researched a whole lot more.”
No one has used the word “revenge” in the buildup but it might well have been mentioned. In his conversation with the Guardian this week, Wales’s young winger Louis Rees-Zammit was bullish in his assertion that Warren Gatland’s conservative tactics cost the British and Irish Lions a series victory in South Africa. Had the team’s exciting backline been unleashed, Rees-Zammit argued, things may have worked out differently.
Wales’s coach, Wayne Pivac, wouldn’t be dragged into that debate and defended his player, detto: “I don’t know if Louis was asked a question or sort of pushed down that route and he has just commented, because I don’t think he’s a young man who would go out and criticise Warren with the way they played the game.” He did, tuttavia, promise to “play a little bit more than certainly the Lions did”.
Then there is the matter of recent World Cups. Pivac said that his team are building towards the next one in France in 2023, but Welsh fans will be all too aware that the Boks have their number at the quadrennial showpiece. Nel 2015 Handré Pollard’s 18 points were the difference in a 23-19 quarter-final win at Twickenham. In 2019’s semi-final, Pollard’s boot again proved decisive in a hard-fought 19-16 win.
“When you play against Wales, there are things you know, you know they’ll be physical,” Kolisi said, echoing Erasmus’s comments expressed in the Chasing the Sun documentary in which he singles out the Welsh as “tough fuckers, not softies like Ireland”. Kolisi added: “That is why the bomb squad is so important,” referencing the team’s nickname for their vaunted bench.
The Springbok captain also praised his fellow flanker Ellis Jenkins, who returns to Test rugby after a three-year absence following a serious knee injury. His last outing came in Wales’s 20-11 victory over South Africa in 2018 in which he was recognised as the player-of-the-match, but was also forced off in the final minutes with damaged ligaments. “It’s always tough seeing a player getting injured, whether it’s your teammate or the competition,” Kolisi said. “I’m really happy that he’s fit and back. Credit to him and his medical team.”
That is where the niceties end. And despite Pivac’s assertions and Rees-Zammit’s desires, il 80 minutes will more than likely resemble previous encounters between two teams who look to dominate up front.
“They play a similar type of game,” Kolisi argued when asked to share his views on the perennial conversation around his team’s approach to the game. There is no doubt that the fare served during the Lions series was tedious but the results of the past two years speak for themselves. Two glitches against Australia aside, the Springboks were one late penalty away from beating New Zealand twice in the Rugby Championship. Add a Lions series win and a World Cup trophy at home and it’s easy to see why Kolisi shrugs off criticisms like would-be tacklers.
“They’re obviously world class,” Pivac said. “We’re going to have to be on top of our game.” Do that, and Wales may settle a score or two in the process.
Galles: McNicholl; Rees-Zammit, J Davies (capt), Tompkins, Adams; Biggar, T Williams; Carré, Elias, Francis, Rowlands, Beard, Jenkins, Basham, Wainwright
Replacements: Roberts, Jones, John, Carter, S Davies, G Davies, Anscombe, L Williams
Sud Africa: Willemse; Kriel, Am, De Allende, Mapimpi; Pollard, H Jantjies; Nché, Mbonambi, Nyakane, Etzebeth, De Jager, Kolisi (capt), fabbro, Vermeulen
Replacements: Marx, Kitshoff, Koch, Mostert, Wiese, Reinach, E Jantjies, Steyn