CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Injuries, illness and absences have wrought havoc with South Africa’s preparations for the first test against Wales in Durban on Saturday and coach Heyneke Meyer says he has never had it so tough in the Springbok hot-seat.
By contrast the build-up for the tourists has been smooth, their slick performance in defeating provincial side Eastern Province Kings 34-12 on Tuesday suggesting no problems in acclimatising to South African conditions. The match kicks off at 4:05 British time (1505 GMT).
The decision of key utility back Frans Steyn suddenly to abandon the national team for the June internationals is a blow.
“It’s definitely been the toughest few weeks for me,” Meyer, who took over in 2011, told reporters. “You plan for five months, you can’t wait to get going and then suddenly you get curve balls from all over.”
Steyn’s absence comes at a time when regular captain Jean de Villiers is missing through injury, along with the highly experienced Jaques Fourie. In-form Juan de Jongh is absent through illness.
That leaves the South Africa with a midfield that comprises inside centre Jan Serfontein in his first international start, next to converted wing JP Pietersen. It is a key area for Wales to target.
“People always say the third year is difficult. You always think it’s going to be smooth sailing but that’s the challenge of the team,” a rueful Meyer added. “I truly believe we have experienced players and you’ve just got to get on with it.”
Experience he most certainly does have, alongside criticism for the decision to bring back players some feel are well past their prime.
The recall of 38-year-old lock Victor Matfield to win what will be a record-equalling 111th cap for South Africa, means that eight of Saturday’s starting line-up were in the squad that won the 2007 World Cup in France. Two more, scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar and flank Schalk Burger, will be on the bench.Meyer said at the end of last year that the time for experimentation was gone – 2014 would be about beginning to prepare in earnest for the World Cup next year.
The worry for him is if the Springboks fail in this two-match series against Wales, and the final June test against Scotland, that the pressure will be on to have a rethink. Many are sceptical about his conservative approach but Meyer is adamant his decision to favour experience is the right one.
"Most of the successful teams around the world have many experienced players,” he said. "The youth brings enthusiasm to the squad but we need a balance. Some of the players who have moved on have become superstars in another country after they were written off (in South Africa)."
Wales coach Warren Gatland has spoken, too, of the importance of this tour before the World Cup and has also picked an experienced side that includes prop Adam Jones, who will make a 100th international appearance for Wales and the British & Irish Lions.
"A lot of this side have experience playing over here before in big games and this week is no different, it's going to be a brilliant occasion, the atmosphere will be electric and hopefully it will be a great test match,” Gatland said in a statement released by WRU on Thursday.
"As coaches we have been impressed in training over the last couple of weeks and there were a couple of tough calls to make.”Wales have never won a test match in South Africa. In fact, their only ever victory in 27 previous meetings came in Cardiff in 1999.
With the hosts taking some strain in recent weeks, perhaps this is a chance for Wales to adjust those statistics.Teams:South Africa: 15-Willie le Roux, 14-Cornal Hendricks, 13-JP Pietersen, 12-Jan Serfontein, 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Morné Steyn, 9-Fourie du Preez, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Victor Matfield (captain), 4-Bakkies Botha, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Gurthrِ SteenkampReplacements: 16-Schalk Brits, 17-Tendai Mtawarira, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Lood de Jager, 20-Schalk Burger, 21-Ruan Pienaar, 22-Johan Goosen, 23-Lwazi MvovoWales: 15-Liam Williams, 14-Alex Cuthbert, 13-Jonathan Davies, 12-Jamie Roberts, 11-George North, 10-Dan Biggar, 9-Mike Phillips, 8-Taulupe Faletau, 7-Aaron Shingler, 6-Dan Lydiate, 5-Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4-Luke Charteris, 3-Adam Jones, 2-Ken Owens, 1-Gethin JenkinsReplacements: 16-Matthew Rees, 17-Paul James, 18-Samson Lee, 19-Ian Evans, 20-Josh Turnbull, 21-Gareth Davies, 22-James Hook, 23-Matthew MorganReferee: Romain Poite (France)
(Reporting by Nick Said; editing by Clare Lovell)