By Nick Mulvenney
TOKYO (Reuters) – With South Africa feeling they are close to perfecting their attritional game-plan and Wales having long ago decided that defence can be the best form of attack, Sunday’s second World Cup semi-final will probably not bring many surprises.
While Springbok physicality and pragmatism brought an end to Japan’s effervescent run through the tournament last weekend, Wales made a meal of struggling past a France side reduced to 14 men for half an hour.
The South Africans will not find it as easy to beat up a Wales side that prides itself on its suffocating defence on Sunday, and Warren Gatland’s side will probably believe they cannot perform so poorly for two weeks in a row.
Both sides have lost fine running backs to injury in the shape of South Africa winger Cheslin Kolbe and Welsh fullback Liam Williams — only encouraging the suspicion that this might be a forward-dominated game for the rugby purist.
A titanic battle at the set piece between two big and experienced packs, plenty of kicking from hand all over the park and big men from both teams trying smash their way over the gainline can be expected.
The band of fleet-footed outside backs might struggle to find room to shine, especially on a Yokohama International Stadium pitch likely to be at the very least damp from the typhoon season rains.
Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales, disregarding three defeats in warm-up matches, consider themselves unbeaten in “competitive” contests since February 2018 and have won four of their last five games against South Africa.
All four wins have come in Cardiff at the close of South Africa’s season, however, and the Springboks will feel they won the one of the five that mattered most, the 2015 World Cup quarter-final.
The clashes have mostly been won by one or two scores and the expectation is that it will again be a tight affair with South Africa flyhalf Handre Pollard believing a single kick will probably settle it.
SENSE OF MISSION
Motivation should never be a problem in a World Cup semi-final but both teams have had a sense of mission driving them at this tournament.
The 2011 semi-final loss to France after Sam Warburton was sent off has haunted Wales ever since and there will be a determination from a battle-hardened squad to send Gatland off at the end of his 12 years of service with some sort of prize.
“You get these opportunities once in a lifetime potentially and you’ve got to grab them with both hands and make the most of it,” the New Zealander said this week.
“It’s about having no regrets and that’s the message of this week.”
South Africa have won the World Cup twice, of course, but they feel honour-bound to make up for a couple of years since the last tournament where they did not do justice to the famous green shirt.
“I think we have been under pressure for the past couple of years to redeem ourselves,” said coach Rassie Erasmus.
“We’ve been number five, six, seven in the world over the last three years since 2015, and we’ve got some proper hidings against almost all the teams. Now we are at that stage where we want to become number one in the world again.”
A final against New Zealand or England, who play on Saturday, would be another huge mountain to climb for whoever comes out on top but both sets of players will be desperate to give themselves a chance to take on that challenge.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Christian Radnedge)