Wales are in the American capital prior to their two-match tour of Argentina with their clash with the Springboks at the RFK Stadium taking place outside World Rugby’s designated Test window.
Critics have slammed the encounter as a money-grabbing exercise with former Wales captain Gwyn Jones declaring it a “shambles” which “devalues international rugby.”
Both teams have named youthful sides, but Wales head coach Gatland sees the 80 minutes as a vital part of his team’s preparation for next year’s World Cup.
“If anyone has come out and criticised this match, they’re completely ill-informed in terms of how important it is for the long term,” he said.
“I think you would have to be someone with a chip on your shoulder or be pretty bitter and twisted to criticise this match because I see it as absolutely vital in terms of our long-term planning for 2019.
“It’s about creating depth and replicating conditions that are going to be very much the same in Japan. Playing in a different situation, a different culture, travelling, and putting ourselves out of our comfort zone all make for a really important stepping stone for us.”
Wales star George North – the most experienced member of Gatland’s touring party even at the age of just 26 – starts in the unusual position of outside centre against South Africa.
Ellis Jenkins captains the side from the back-row for the first time while his Cardiff Blues team-mate Tomos Williams will make his international debut at scrum-half.
Uncapped 20-year-old flanker Aaron Wainwright is on the bench where Wales face a late fitness call on Rhys Patchell.
Should he fail to be fit, Gareth Davies will step in.
🎥The Wales squad touched down in Washington D.C yesterday evening after the short hop across the Atlantic. WRU TV takes you behind the scenes... pic.twitter.com/OnlvIZiH5u— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) May 28, 2018
Midfield option for North
Gatland has urged North – who has made three previous starts for his country at centre – to deliver the goods.
“Long term I think George is potentially an option in midfield. We’ve seen players in the past that have started their international careers on the wing, like Tana Umaga and Ma’a Nonu, and then moved into the midfield,” he said.
“It’s not out of the realms of possibility George could end up doing that in his career, but we are lucky enough to have some talented midfielders already.
“I think we’d all love to see him get back to the form he had in 2013. That was a while ago now and at the 2011 World Cup he was absolutely phenomenal.
“Then someone else made the decision for him to leave Wales and to go up to Northampton. I think he learned a lot from that. He’s made what he thinks is the best decision for him in terms of returning to Wales on a dual contract with the Ospreys and he will get looked after.”
South Africa have named an inexperienced XV of their own with just 159 caps between them. Of the match day 23, there are 13 with no previous experience of international rugby.
Pieter-Steph du Toit is captain for Rassie Erasmus’ first game in charge.
Fly-half Elton Jantjies and centre Jesse Kriel also start.
Erasmus said: “As coaches we are tremendously excited about the prospect of seeing some of our best young players getting the opportunity to play at this level.
“Wales have a very solid and effective kicking strategy and their cohesive forward and set-piece play are some of their main strong points. However, I do believe we have picked a match-day squad that will be able to compete very strongly.”
Wales (15-1): Hallam Amos; Tom Prydie, George North, Owen Watkin, Steff Evans; Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Ross Moriarty, Ellis Jenkins (capt), Seb Davies, Bradley Davies, Cory Hill, Dillon Lewis, Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones, Rhodri Jones, Adam Beard, Aaron Wainwright, Aled Davies, Rhys Patchell/Gareth Davies, Hadleigh Parkes
South Africa (15-1): Curwin Bosch; Travis Ismaiel, Jesse Kriel, Andre Esterhuizen, Makazole Mapimpi; Elton Jantjies, Ivan van Zyl; Dan du Preez, Oupa Mohoje, Kwagga Smith, Pieter-Steph du Toit (capt), Jason Jenkins, Wilco Louw, Chilliboy Ralepelle, Ox Nche
Replacements: Akker van der Merwe, Steven Kitshoff, Thomas du Toit, Marvin Orie, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Embrose Papier, Robert du Preez, Warrick Gelant
Date: Saturday, June 2
Venue: Robert F Kennedy Stadium, Washington DC
Kick-off: 17:00 local (01:00 UAE Time, Sunday June 3)
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
Assistant referees: Alexandre Ruiz (France), Frank Murphy (Ireland)
TMO: David Grashoff (England)
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