Allister Coetzee's decision to back an inexperienced team in Cardiff could have serious short- and long-term consequences for the Springboks, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Can one result influence the way a team is viewed? A top coach once told me that the final game of the Test season can indeed alter perceptions.
When a Bok team wins its final game of the season, he argued, it goes into the Christmas break on a high and the public usually feels more optimistic about the side's chances in the subsequent year. When a Bok team loses its final match, however, it has to wait six long months for a shot at redemption and there is inevitably more criticism from the media and fans during that period.
Perhaps this is what the Bok coaches and players are hoping to achieve in Cardiff this Saturday. Perhaps Coetzee believes that he can win back the public through the selection of a young team. Perhaps this Bok group as a whole feels that a spirited and expansive performance at the Millennium Stadium will give the South African rugby community good cause to believe that the future is not so bleak.
But can anyone really forget about what has transpired over the first 11 Tests of 2016?
Regardless of what happens in Cardiff on Saturday, Coetzee's Boks have racked up some truly horrific records, namely the inaugural losses to Ireland at home and Argentina away, the first-ever loss to Italy, and the worst defeat on South African soil (to the All Blacks in Durban). Two weeks ago, the Boks lost to England for the first time in 10 years.
Coetzee has picked an inexperienced team to face Wales. Perhaps Coetzee and his lieutenants feel that the public would be more sympathetic if a young side was to lose in Cardiff. Of course, if the Boks were to win, some might label Coetzee a genius and forget about the first 11 Tests of his tenure when looking forward to 2017.
Either way, it appears as if the expectations of the South African rugby public have been managed ahead of this match.
Yet, there will be plenty at stake in the Boks' final Test of the season regardless of any external perceptions and expectations. One more loss, and Coetzee's Boks will finish 2016 with the worst record by a South African side in a calendar year (in the professional era). More significantly, another loss will increase the Boks' chances of ranking outside the top four ahead of the World Cup draw next May.
The Bok side picked to play Wales is not the strongest available side on tour. Indeed, it could also be said that Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn should have been included in this touring party from the outset.
While the team that started against Italy was rightly vilified in the wake of a historic defeat, one fails to understand how the selections of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies will increase the Boks' chances of beating Wales this Saturday.
While the Lions halfbacks dazzled on attack over the course of the 2016 Super Rugby tournament, their tactical and defensive weaknesses were exposed in subsequent Tests. The conditions in the northern hemisphere demand an accurate tactical showing. It's for this reason that the selections of De Klerk and Jantjies can be seen as a risk.
The Dragons' form should not be overlooked. Last week, they needed a last-gasp drop goal by Sam Davies to spare them an embarrassing result against Japan. Regular coach Warren Gatland is currently focusing on the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017, and so assistant Rob Howley has been left to steer the ship.
Wales are under pressure to bounce back this weekend. They will go into this match without regular skipper Sam Warburton, who has been ruled out due to injury.
However, Wales still boast some world-class players in their starting XV. Leigh Halfpenny has the potential to win games with his accurate goal-kicking boot. Jonathan Davies will test the Boks' new midfield combination, while Alun Wyn Jones will pressure the visitors' lineout. The hosts also boast some big names on the bench in the form of Taulupe Faletau and Jamie Roberts.
While they have been unconvincing in recent matches, and while they have only beaten South Africa twice before, Wales should fancy their chances against a a Bok side that's wanting for experience, synergy and confidence.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Wales 2, Springboks 28, Draw 1
In Wales: Wales 2, Springboks 15, Draw 1
Wales – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams; 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn-Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Gethin Jenkins (c).
Subs: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Cory Hill, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts.
Springboks – 15 Johan Goosen, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Lionel Mapoe.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images