Gwyn Jones: Wales must cling to hope but desperate selection devalues jersey

Warren Gatland's men face a tough afternoon
-Credit: (Image: 2024 Getty Images)

I am fearful about the outcome of this match. It is a scratch Welsh side to be sure, but it’s the quality and motivation of the South Africans that creates the trepidation.

Firstly, there will be strong support in London for the Springboks as the thousands of exiles living there will take the chance to see their heroes play. Secondly, the South African mentality does not have a ‘take it easy’ mode. Every time they take the field their aim is to dominate and annihilate the opposition.

But thirdly and most importantly, the Springboks are preparing for a series against Ireland and they are lusting for the chance to prove that they are the best team in the world. They feel their World Cup success is unappreciated. They are bemused at the praise lavished on Ireland, constantly being referred to as the best team in the world throughout the Six Nations.

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Rassie Erasmus has weaponised that feeling that they have been disrespected. They see the new law removing the scrum as an option at free kicks as a targeted attempt by the rest of the rugby nations to undermine one of South Africa’s great strengths.

In short, the Springboks will face Wales with strong support behind them, feeling angry and slighted and carrying even more snarling aggression than usual.

Wales by contrast are going into this match with damage limitation somewhere in their minds. I’m sure they harbour the idea that they could pull off something miraculous, but the reality of the gulf in quality and experience between the sides cannot be dismissed completely.

The match will raise some money for the WRU, and in the current climate that is a priority, but I do worry that this match could do more harm that good should things go pear-shaped.

Warren Gatland has spent the last few weeks like a village coach ringing around on a Saturday morning looking for players to make up the numbers. In fairness, he’s done a reasonable job in the circumstances. He has filled the problem position of second row with a couple of willing Dragons. Indeed, half the pack comes from the Gwent region, a side that had an awful season. How does Gatland instil some belief against the World Champions after the season they’ve had?

In an attempt to cling to some positives, much of the pre-match focus has been on Mason Grady at 12. The physical comparison with Jamie Roberts is obvious. But those are big shoes to fill. Grady is 22-years-old and searching for a position to make his own, at the same age Roberts was Lions man of the series against South Africa.

I find these comparisons unhelpful. Grady has all the physical attributes to be a Test match regular, but he has to forge his own path not emulate someone else's. I have been a big advocate of Grady being on the pitch for Wales because we don’t have many players of that stature at our disposal.

It took Gatland the best part of two seasons before he tried him at 12. So there must have been some reason why he wasn’t used there earlier. Grady has shown his potential in fleeting bursts for club and country, but he is yet to put a commanding 80 minutes together. Can he realise his potential? His ceiling is high so I hope he will.

However, trying to be the midfield powerhouse against South Africa is a whole different level of difficulty. I wish him well.

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Wales under Warren Gatland have done quite well against South Africa. The games where Wales did well were the typical arm-wrestles that epitomised his first stint in charge. Trying to get in the Springboks' faces this time around will be tough. Gatland should have learned from the 2021 Lions tour that you can’t out Springbok the Springboks.

Call-up seems desperate

The inclusion of Regan Grace in the national squad smacks of desperation. You could argue that there aren’t many options but for a player to potentially win an international cap in his very first game of competitive senior rugby union over the coming weeks devalues the blood sweat, tears and sacrifice that goes hand in hand with that achievement.

The biggest challenge facing the Welsh coaching team in the aftermath of the ignominy of the wooden spoon is to come up with a coherent attacking strategy. Wales have lost nine championship matches out of 10 since Gatland’s returned. Something needs to change.

However, against South Africa’s blitz defence, and Wales’ experimental backline, Wales would be crazy if they did play a massive kicking game this weekend. Wales will put the ball behind them and try to keep a good shape in the chase. That is not my plan for the long term but I would endorse that this weekend, and hope for the best.