In a scene not too dissimilar from something out of the film, ‘Zulu’, Warren Gatland’s Wales squad face the biggest challenge of their World Cup to date. Having seen their ranks thinned prior to the tournament getting underway, after a series of freak injuries forced out key players including Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies, their numbers have been whittled down further following a gruelling group stage against former world champions Australia and England, as well as the hugely physical Fijians and Uruguayans.
Now without Halfpenny’s understudy for their quarter final showdown, Liam Williams, following a serious foot injury sustained against the Wallabies in their final Pool match, Gatland looks across his ranks and sees a seriously depleted force. However, such is the appetite for rugby back home, those few, brave men will nonetheless be expected to carry the hopes of a nation against a South African side, who are playing excellent rugby and who have more or less kept their entire starting team fit. In the betting the bookies such as betway fancy the South African’s who are priced at 4/11 while the Welsh are priced at 11/4 (the draw is 20/1). Surely these prices must reflect the Wales injury crisis as a full strength Dragons would be fancied to give the Spring Boks a game.
Whether the first or second of those South African achievements is the most impressive – this World Cup has already seen a record number of tournament-ending injuries – there is no doubt that Wales will step-out onto the Twickenham turf on Saturday as underdogs. But just as those few, brave Welsh Guards stood their ground against the might of the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift in 1879, Gatland’s side will draw strength from their achievements to date and will know that the only way they stand a chance of resisting the might of the Springboks is by sticking together and playing to their strengths.
Following a bruising encounter in their final group match – a game they were right to compete so heatedly in, especially when one considers that the reward for the victors was a far more appealing quarter final draw against Scotland – Warren Gatland is now in the unenviable position of having called up all of the backs at his disposal from the original 47- man training squad, with just Cardiff Blue’s utility man, Rhys Patchell, not having seen action so far in the competition. When the fans are wondering what Gavin Henson‘s been up to since his last international appearance in 2011, you know that times are hard.
But this isn’t the first time that Wales have been labelled underdogs; in fact, it’s not even the first time this tournament. But this is something that the nation have been dealing with – and thriving under – since the dawn of time. Wales were unlucky to miss out in 2011 when they were controversially defeated by the French in the semi-finals after Sam Warburton was harshly punished for a perceived dangerous tackle. The fact that they made it to that stage of the competition, virtually under the radar of the world media, will surely act as a great incentive to the Welsh fans and coaching staff alike, all of whom will be praying that a similar feat can be achieved this time out. Should Wales win this one who’s to say they could not go all the way, you can get 25/1 on the Welsh should you fancy an upset.
Just like at Rorke’s Drift, Wales find themselves low on numbers and standing on unfriendly ground. They will have to fight to the last man, maintain discipline, and above all take their chances when they arise – but if they do, who’s to say that a similar underdog story won’t be written into the annals of time on Saturday?