South Africa v Wales: Springboks aim to lift nation out of darkness

By Gareth GriffithsBBC Sport Wales in Johannesburg, South Africa
Siya Kolisi with the World Cup trophy
Kolisi lifts the 2019 Rugby World Cup as South Africa's captain
South Africa v Wales - first Test
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria Date: Saturday, 2 July Kick-off:16:05 BST
Coverage: Radio Wales commentary will be available on Radio Wales Extra, BBC Sport Online and 882 medium wave, Radio Cymru, plus live text and match report on the BBC Sport website

There is not much his fellow South Africans believe Springboks captain Siya Kolisi can not do.

Solving the current power crisis engulfing the country might though even be beyond this inspirational figure.

"We don't make the lights come on!" Kolisi joked before the opening Test match against Wales.

But the Springboks' success on the rugby field can provide some light for large parts of the country that have been plunged into darkness over the last week.

Shedding the load

Last year during the British and Irish Lions series, South Africa had to cope with Covid-19 and civil unrest and rioting on the streets.

Now, 12 months on, it is blackouts affecting the country with the term "load shedding" dominating the South Africa news agenda all week.

It refers to the interruption of an electricity supply to avoid excessive load on the generating plant. In short, a series of controlled power cuts leaving parts of the country without electricity for periods of time.

The concept is not a new phenomenon to South Africans with the country's main power supplier struggling to provide the service for years because of historic infrastructure and funding problems.

The new power cuts have occurred following a dispute between workers and the country's main power supplier and this stand-off has plunged the nation into a power crisis in the middle of its winter.

Soweto township residents sing and chant slogans while holding placards as they march in the Johannesburg Central Business District to deliver a petition at the Mayors office on June 21, 2022, for what they say is a general lack of service delivery and electricity in their community.
Soweto township residents sing and chant slogans while holding placards as they march in the Johannesburg Central Business District to deliver a petition at the Mayors office for what they say is a general lack of service delivery and electricity in their community.

It is hoped the situation will not prevent a catastrophic grid collapse, but the impact of sustained power cuts is having a significant impact on the economy and ordinary people's lives.

Out of the gloom, the Springboks are one institution that can unite this divided and often troubled nation.

"I have felt it since school, when the Springboks play on the weekend it feels like everything was OK for that moment," said Kolisi.

"It does not take away your problems, but makes you feel OK for that time and makes people smile.

"It gives you something positive to speak about when the Springboks do well.

"We think of that every single time we put on the jersey. It is not just a rugby game for us, it goes far deeper than that. We take the responsibility seriously and that's what drives us."

Capacity crowd

The disruption should not affect the Pretoria arena with the stadium not dependant on the grid for its power needs on the day, instead relying on generators.

This occasion is what the rugby-loving South African country has been waiting for as capacity crowds return following the restrictions of Covid-19 regulations.

Their team have been world champions for almost three years and South Africans have not been able to see them play on home soil in the flesh.

A year ago, fans were getting refunds for their Lions tickets having waited 12 years to watch the tourists in South Africa.

And on Saturday it will be the end of 1,050 days since South Africans went into a stadium and watched the Springboks play.

"It is so important we have people back this weekend and it's sold out," added Kolisi.

"We never take it for granted and want to represent every single person in that ground.

"We know when we need to turn up wanting to win. We can't disrespect the people who have bought tickets or the people of South Africa, who have not seen us in so long, by pitching up and thinking it is just going to happen."

The occasion is not lost on assistant coach Mzwandile Stick.

"After winning the World Cup we have never got to play in front of our people to give them a taste of what we achieved in Japan," said Stick.

"We want to make our people proud and help unite our country."

Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus will not be present because he is still banned from match days after being punished for an hour-long video criticising the refereeing in the first Test defeat by the Lions, so head coach Jacques Nienaber will guide proceedings.

Power play

The tactics will not change. While the country is struggling for power off the field, power on it will continue to drive the Springboks after their fearsome forwards laid the platform for World Cup and Lions series success.

The self-styled Springboks' 'bomb squad' term was coined in Japan in 2019 and refers to the ferocious front-row resources at their disposal.

Sometimes described as the best two trios in world rugby, Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe will start the first Test against Wales.

Wales will 'stand up' to us says Boks skipper Kolisi

Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Vincent Koch will then trot off the bench to finish the job.

The effectiveness of this tactic was demonstrated last November against Wales in the Springboks' 23-18 win, replacement hooker Marx typifying the impact of the South African forwards by scoring the match-winning try.

So a new-look Wales front row of Gareth Thomas, Ryan Elias and Dillon Lewis will have a testing time in the Pretoria cauldron with Tomas Francis among the reinforcements ready to come off the bench.

The tactics have led to South Africa being described as one-dimensional, but Stick is defiant about the style and points to the quality of the likes of Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe and Lukhanyo Am.

"The most important thing is to win rugby games because we know when we do that people are happy," said Stick.

"If you are to ask me would I prefer to play beautiful champagne rugby and lose the game or play so-called boring rugby I would take the boring rugby, every time if it was going to win games and the World Cup.

"If you think you are going to play touch rugby at Test match level you are not going to reach the World Cup play-offs.

"We play to our strengths. I enjoy watching the Springboks even if some other people don't. Being physical is one of our strengths and you should never move from your strengths."

Wales written off

Wales have 'a well balanced side' - Nienaber

Wales' hopes have been dismissed in many quarters before a ball has been kicked in the three-Test series.

The degree of difficulty is increased by the opening two games - in Pretoria and Bloemfontein - being at altitude.

There is a sign in the Pretoria stadium which says "altitude matters". Wales hope they have countered this by having a series of gruelling fitness sessions back home before travelling out earlier than normal to South Africa to acclimatise.

History is also against them. Wales have also never beaten the Springboks in South Africa, losing all 10 previous Tests, with many of those results being comprehensive defeats, most notably their record 96-13 hammering in 1998.

Recent results are also troubling. Wales only won one game and finished fifth in the Six Nations, which culminated in that first humbling home defeat against Italy in mid March.

Kolisi is wary of the backlash.

"I don't celebrate that (Italy defeat) because we are not ones to be laughing at anyone," said Kolisi.

"I played in a team that lost to Japan for the first time and we've lost against Italy.

"We've been there and we know what it feels like. We know what it takes to get out of a situation like this and what you will do to to get out of it.

"As much as they're in a tough situation, that can bring a side together.

"Knowing the Wales players, they are not going to be thinking about giving up any time soon.

"What better way to get out of a hole than playing against the number one team in the world."

Reasons to be hopeful?

So do Wales have a chance? They believe so with captain Biggar insisting Wales are not coming on a three-week holiday.

South Africa have not played together since November 2021 and have a reputation as slow starters, perhaps emphasised by the opening loss to the Lions before battling back to win the series.

'It’s good to be nervous’ - Biggar

Wales have a good recent record against South Africa with four wins in the last six games and welcome back influential centre George North from injury.

Wales also have the memory of pushing the world champions in a compelling contest in Cardiff in November 2021.

They led for 73 minutes thanks to six Biggar penalties before Marx's late intervention helped the Springboks to a first win in Cardiff in eight years.

Stick knows favourites South Africa must show the same desperation as the underdogs.

"We know very well Wales will be desperate to beat the best team in the world, they will come hard against us," added Stick.

"Those guys are just stubborn, they don't go away.

"For us to be able to stay at the Palazzo hotel and have the blue lights on the way to training, if you're going to be too comfortable, with the quality they've got in that team, you might find yourself 20 points down.

"We're not taking them for granted."

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