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Gatland aims to beat Boks at World Cup

Wales captain Sam Warburton and his team-mates face a formidable challenge against the Springboks. Photo / Getty Images
Wales captain Sam Warburton and his team-mates face a formidable challenge against the Springboks. Photo / Getty Images

He might have signed as Wales coach until the 2015 World Cup but tonight's match against South Africa looms as a watershed for 'Welsh Warren' Gatland.

This World Cup, even though he has an invite to the next one already, seems likely to be the one that marks Gatland's coaching card with a pass or fail mark. Gatland shot to glory with a grand slam and a win in the 2008 Six Nations but has finished fourth each year since.

His opposition in the opening match is also key. Gatland's Wales have come frustratingly close to the Springboks in their three Cardiff losses (29-25 November 2010; 34-31 June 2010; 20-15, June 2008) and a win tonight would seal a great deal - Wales' place in the knockout phase and Gatland's coaching reputation and future. If Wales cannot beat South Africa, they face two pressure matches in Hamilton against Samoa on September 18 and Fiji on October 2 to decide their World Cup fate.

Wales have beaten the Springboks once in 25 attempts; a 29-19 victory under the stewardship of one G. Henry in June 1999. However, a loss and any further setbacks may set the volatile Welsh rugby mandarins casting critical glances in Gatland's direction, even though he signed on to 2015 late last year.

Win, and Gatland could have the rugby world open up before him. If you believe in the theory that a contract is a piece of paper which can be torn up with the right arrangements made, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Gatland could look at the All Black coaching job for the next World Cup if the new incumbents - whoever they are - don't do the business in the next couple of years.

This year South Africa, as defending champions, cannot be classed as particularly vulnerable but Gatland has had Wales humming in last month's warm-up wins over England and Argentina. The Port Elizabeth test against the All Blacks is a sound template for Gatland, given it included the majority of a Springbok first XV that had been rested after Super Rugby. South Africa outscrummed a weakened New Zealand in that test. They were also terriers in the tackle, notably through Heinrich Brussow who helped win the turnover battle in the absence of Richie McCaw.

There was also plenty of aerial work for the back three. They were subjected to the relentless boot of first-five Morne Steyn who forced countless counter-attacks from within the All Blacks half. The coaching trio of Gatland, Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards will know countering those three factors is paramount.

Forward parity is the biggest question. At the scrum they will be without loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins (calf muscle strain) for this opening game and hooker Matthew Rees also injured. Lineouts could be a struggle, too, against Matfield and co while the loose forwards led by new captain, 22-year-old Sam Warburton, face a formidable foe at the breakdown. If those difficulties can somehow be countered, Wales look promising. Their backline consists of attacking talent like Mike Phillips, James Hook, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and Lee Byrne.

Provided the forwards live up to their name, South Africa present the perfect gauge as to whether the likes of Phillips, Roberts and Byrne still have penetrative power; whether Hook is the playmaker the public has seen previously and whether Williams and relative newcomer George North on the wings can create - or even finish - tries from broken play.

Welsh woes

* Lost: Samoa 16-13, pool play, Cardiff, 1991.
* Lost: Ireland 24-23, pool play, Johannesburg, 1995.
* Lost: Samoa 38-31, pool play, Cardiff, 1999.
* Lost: Despite leading New Zealand and England, 2003.
* Lost: Fiji, 38-34, pool play, Nantes, 2007.
* Overall results: 1987, third; 1991, pool; 1995, pool; 1999, quarter-final; 2003, quarter-final; 2007, pool.

- Herald on Sunday

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