(Photo Credit: Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
The experience of playing in a Rugby World Cup semi-final will bolster the Springboks’ chances in Sunday’s nation-stopping showdown with Wales, believes No 8 Duane Vermeulen.
The Test veteran is one of the 10 survivors in the current Springbok squad who defeated Wales in the quarter-finals four years ago to earn a semi-final against eventual champions, New Zealand. Tendai Mtawarira, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Francois Louw, Handre Pollard, Damian de Allende and Willie le Roux are the others.
Vermeulen said that the result four years ago had no relevance to this weekend’s match but that the experience gathered in those matches could be vital.
"It’s actually a difficult thing [whether the result four years ago meant anything]. In a way, it does. But in a different way, it’s got no relevance. When you get to these stages, it’s knockouts – so, do or die,” he said.
"But if you’ve been in pressure situations before, you kind of know how to handle that, how to soak it all in, and how to turn that pressure into something positive.
"We’ve got guys in our team who can do that. Wales have guys in their team who can do that too, who can handle the pressure and turn it around into something positive.
“Once you start your World Cup campaign, you are under pressure to perform, either from your team-mates, your coach, your country, who you represent. Your family, everything.
"You’ve got to handle that, but knockouts are knockouts. Once you are out, you are out. But going into this weekend and playing Wales, it’s neutral ground – they are playing away from home, we are playing away from home.
"It’s not like the past weekend where it felt like the whole world was against us as a team, because everyone was hoping Japan would win.
"We kept on focusing on our goals. Now it’s a 50-50 game, it’s either the bounce of the ball, or the guy who executes his plan to the tee that will walk away as winners.
"But you’ve got to win. That’s the main thing.”
South Africa beat Wales four years ago with a match-winning try from scrumhalf Fourie du Preez – created by a behind-the-back pass from Vermeulen – who says they face a much stronger Welsh team this around.
"They are a difficult team to beat, to play against,” he said.
“They’re not Grand Slam champions for nothing. They have been world No 1 this year – in and out, first and second position.
"They’re a top-class team with top-class players. We will really need to make a massive step up but it’s not a team you can’t score against. But you have to be clinical in what you want to do and how you want to approach that.”
Wales scraped through their quarter-final by a single point (20-19) against France, aided by a red card to French lock Sebastien Vahaamahina for foul play early in the second half.
The Springboks lost Tendai Mtawarira for 10 minutes for a ‘tip tackle’ during their quarterfinal win over Japan (26-3). Maintaining discipline and keeping 15 players on the field will be a key objective for the Springboks, says Vermeulen.
"When we play, we try not to get cards – yellows or reds – because when you do get a card, you are under pressure,” he said.
“We actually felt that the past weekend against Japan, with 'Beast' being off for 10 minutes.
"We had to defend with 14 men, and that makes it difficult. You can’t have that in knockout games – you are going to get punished.
"That has a massive effect on the game and on the end result. Hopefully, we can play with 15 men all the time. It’s not a thing we have discussed yet, but hopefully we’ll speak even more about it in this week.
"There was great defence shown by the team. Not conceding a try for 10 minutes when down to 14 men … that was fantastic to see as a team, and for a coach like Jacques Nienaber (assistant coach). We put a lot of work into that.”
A more precise execution of the team’s attacking plan – with fewer handling errors – will also be a focus although Vermeulen put the subject in context.
"On the attacking side, we had a few opportunities and knocked a few balls on, and dropped one or two," he said.
"But going into a semi-final, you might only get three or four opportunities, and then you need to convert those into points because you never know when you will be back in the points zone.
"It’s a difficult thing, but it’s individual errors – we’re not robots. Guys try something, and sometimes the ball goes to ground, and you make a mistake.
"But as long as it’s not a trend that keeps going throughout the game, and as long as it’s not system error, then in a way, we are OK with that."