CARDIFF, Wales (AP) It’s been one problem after another for South Africa at the Rugby World Cup.
First there were the complaints about the racial composition of the squad because there were only nine non-whites. Then came the upset loss to Japan on the opening weekend that stunned the rugby world. That was followed by a broken jaw sustained by Jean de Villiers that has deprived the team of its captain for the remainder of the tournament.
Yet if the Springboks can show the kind of resolve and spirit that new captain Fourie du Preez has in the last three months, they could yet head home from Britain with the Webb Ellis Cup.
Du Preez thought his rugby career might be over when he tore medial collateral ligaments in his knee while training with his Japanese club in June, the latest in a litany of injuries for the 33-year-old scrumhalf.
Little wonder Du Preez exhibited a sense of fulfillment on Thursday, as he spoke of his pride at being asked to lead South Africa in its crucial Pool B game against Scotland in Newcastle on Saturday.
“Life sometimes takes funny turns,” the 2007 World Cup winner said, “so to sit here as captain is unbelievable for me.”
Things could be looking up for the Springboks, whose mood appeared to be more relaxed in camp this week after their 46-6 win over Samoa in Birmingham last weekend. A loss – coming after the defeat to Japan – could have bundled the two-time champions out of the tournament.
On Saturday, the South Africans will be taking on a Scotland squad with an injury list that is growing at the wrong time. After star lock Grant Gilchrist was ruled out of the tournament on Monday with a knee injury, coach Vern Cotter selected a team for the Springboks that will be missing key players in flanker John Hardie, flyhalf Finn Russell, and center Mark Bennett.
South Africa has won 11 of its last 12 meetings with Scotland.
“The match against Samoa was probably one of the most pressured games I’ve ever been involved in,” Du Preez said. “But every member of the squad stood up and we got a good win. However, that hasn’t changed the position we’re in.”
It’s not the only high-profile game on Saturday as the pool stage heats up. In the biggest match of the tournament so far, England is aiming to stave off elimination by beating Australia at Twickenham.
Here’s a look at Saturday’s games:
SAMOA vs. JAPAN (11-3, 1-0 at RWC), Milton Keynes, 1330 GMT
This is virtually a knockout game for both teams, who slumped to heavy defeats in their second games to puncture optimism from opening-weekend wins.
A five-day turnaround cost the Japanese in a 45-10 loss to Scotland, but they have had 11 days to recover this time. And they beat Samoa in their most recent meeting, 33-14 in Tokyo last year.
Samoa has named its most-capped Rugby World Cup team ever -with a combined 346 tests of experience – featuring lock Kane Thompson, who is returning from a two-game suspension, and inside center Johnny Leota given his tournament debut. There are five changes from the loss to the Springboks.
SOUTH AFRICA vs. SCOTLAND (20-5, 1-0 at RWC), Newcastle, 1545 GMT
Scotland was building momentum with bonus-point wins over Japan and the United States, with five-try performances in the second half in both games. But injuries have deprived Cotter of vital members of his team, particularly Russell, who has transformed Scotland’s attacking play from flyhalf.
On Monday, flanker Blair Cowan was preparing to play for his club team in London. Called up to replace Gilchrist, he has been rushed into the Scotland team and now finds himself up against the Springboks’ world-class back row.
This will be like a home match for Scotland, with Newcastle close to the Scottish border, but South Africa has won five of its last six away matches against the Scots.
ENGLAND vs. AUSTRALIA (18-1-24 overall, 3-2 in RWC), Twickenham, 1900 GMT
After 15 days of the tournament, host nation England risks being knocked out of the World Cup if it loses to Australia.
Few teams would derive more satisfaction in finishing off the English campaign than Australia – regardless of what Wallabies coach Michael Cheika says to the contrary.
An early elimination for England could affect the atmosphere around the tournament.
It could also mean the end for England coach Stuart Lancaster, who signed a new six-year deal with the RFU only last year. Lancaster dropped Sam Burgess for fit-again center Jonathan Joseph in his biggest selection call.