Wales hooker Ken Owens says his team is ready to stand up to South Africa’s physical might and fight fire with fire when the two teams meet in Sunday’s Rugby World Cup semifinal.
Wales booked its place in the final four with a nerve-shredding 20-19 win over France in last Sunday’s quarterfinal in Oita, profiting from a red card for French lock Sebastien Vahaamahina early in the second half to come from behind and claim victory in the final minutes.
South Africa, meanwhile, lived up to its reputation as one of world rugby’s most physically dominating sides, manhandling Japan 26-3 in their last-eight matchup to advance to Sunday’s semifinal at International Stadium Yokohama.
South Africa has established itself as a genuine contender for the title under head coach Rassie Erasmus following several years of underachievement, but Owens believes Wales can be confident having won each of its last four encounters with the Springboks.
“It will be a hugely physical game, like I think everybody has talked about,” Owens said Wednesday in Tokyo. “That’s inbred in them. They’re a quality outfit. You can see the growth of their squad over the last couple of seasons under Rassie Erasmus. They’ve had some big results. We’re just looking forward to playing against them in a World Cup semifinal.
“They’ve definitely improved over the last two or three years. They’ve got a pretty settled squad, a settled side. We’re fortunate we’ve won the last four against them but form goes out the window and records are there to be broken.”
Wales almost didn’t make it to the semifinals after running into an inspired French team that scored three first-half tries in their quarterfinal. Vahaamahina’s 49th-minute red card for elbowing Aaron Wainwright gave the Welsh a lifeline, however, and a try in the 74th minute from Ross Moriarty and subsequent conversion from Dan Biggar capped off the comeback.
Ill discipline cost Wales in its last World Cup semifinal appearance in 2011, when Sam Warburton was sent off 19 minutes into the team’s 9-8 loss to France in Auckland. Owens believes the experience that carried Wales to a Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations will stand it in good stead this time around.
“Discipline is a huge one,” he said. “For us, it’s just about backing our experience. Our performances have shown that over the last two years. Stick to what we know, make sure our processes are right.
“I think we did that in 2011, even though we went down to 14 with Sam going off. We were probably in a similar place to France in the quarterfinal. We were probably the best side that lost on the day.
“So I think for us as a team, the boys who were involved in 2011 and the coaches, it’s about being disciplined, keeping your error count low and just backing yourself.”
Wales can call on players of the caliber of standoff Dan Biggar, inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones, and flying winger Josh Adams, who has been a revelation at the tournament and shares the lead for top try scorer with Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima and South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi on five.
“His attacking game is exceptional but his all-round game is good as well,” Wales skill coach Neil Jenkins said of the 24-year-old Adams. “His aerial game is pretty good, he sees the game quite easily, understands the game exceptionally well, and his defensive system, in terms of what we look at and how we defend, is very good as well. He’s just an outstanding all-round rugby player and he’s been a huge plus for us over the last few years.”
Wales has appeared in two previous World Cup semifinals — in 1987 and 2011 — but has never before reached the final. Anticipation is building back home that this year could finally be the breakthrough, but Jenkins insists the coaches and players are simply focused on the task in hand.
“I’d assume they’re really excited back home and they’re probably looking forward to Sunday,” said Jenkins. “I don’t know what’s going on this weekend but I’m sure there will be a lot of hype around it and most people will be up watching it and supporting the boys.
“The fans are exceptional. No matter where we are in the world, they tend to turn up and watch us. I’m sure it will be no different on Sunday, and let’s hope we can put a performance in and make them very proud of what we’re all about.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5