Wales and South Africa have gone about their business quietly in Tokyo this week, avoiding the barbs, cheap shots, claims and counter-claims that have marked the build-up to the other Rugby World Cup semi-final this weekend.
New Zealand vs England, complete with their global PR and headline-grabbing coaches, is a glamour fixture.
It has left Wales vs the Springboks as something of an afterthought, which is slightly unwarranted given the teams’ form in 2019.
The protagonists in tomorrow’s second semi-final in Yokohama have lost just one competitive match between them this year – and that was South Africa’s pool-stage defeat by the All Blacks at this World Cup.
They are hardened Test-match teams that have almost forgotten what it feels like to lose. But one has to come off second best in what is expected to be a brutally physical test at the International Stadium.
“It won’t be the prettiest game in the world,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said yesterday.
The Welsh haven’t tasted defeat in a match of any meaning since March last year in the Six Nations. That’s 19 months ago. The long goodbye to Gatland, their coach of 12 years, could yet end at the country’s first ever World Cup final – possibly against his native New Zealand. Now that would be some way to go out.
The South Africans won the southern-hemisphere Rugby Championship title, drawing against the All Blacks in New Zealand along the way, and have eight victories in ten matches this calendar year. Under Rassie Erasmus, their coach since March 2018, they’ve gone back to what they know best – being physical, dominating the set piece, a disciplined kick-and-chase game.
It often isn’t pretty, but it’s highly effective. The same can be said for Wales’ low-risk style of play under Gatland.
“It’s going to be two sides tactically really trying to figure each other out, feel each other out for the first 20 to 30 minutes,” South Africa stand-off Handre Pollard said, “and then enforcing whatever plan we made all week, and trying to put the pressure on them.”
“It’s not a gameplan or rugby with a lot of flair in it,” he added, “but it’s suffocating.”
By taking away the set piece and keeping the ball in play as much as possible, Wales have managed to nullify South Africa’s biggest threat in the teams’ recent meetings. The Springboks had only lost one Test to Wales in 108 years before a 12-6 loss at Cardiff in 2014 – they’ve lost four more times since. When the Rugby Championship winners take on the Six Nations Grand Slam champions, each side will be missing their most explosive back.
A day after winger Cheslin Kolbe was left out by South Africa because of an ankle injury, Wales announced that full-back Liam Williams would be playing no further part in the World Cup after hurting his ankle in an accidental collision in training.
“At this stage of the tournament,” Gatland said, “you are always going to lose a couple of quality players.”
Erasmus has six forwards on his bench, signalling his intentions. Gatland expects both teams to play for territory and keep it tight. Don’t expect a running rugby classic.