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)
Captain Rory Best will miss Ireland’s tour to Australia with a hamstring injury.
Munster’s Niall Scannell will replace the British and Irish Lions hooker in Ireland’s squad.
Head coach Joe Schmidt explained that vice captains Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony could share the captaincy for June’s three-Test series against the Wallabies.
Ireland confirmed Best’s injury on twitter, before boss Schmidt explained how his squad may handle the 35-year-old’s absence.
“Rory’s not going to tour,” said Schmidt.
“He had a hamstring issue that kept him out of the game against Ospreys and we felt he was really going in the right direction and he would be ready for game one, definitely for game two. But he’s just not quite where we need him to be.
“Because a number of these things have just become apparent, we’ve two vice captains in Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton and a strong leadership group.
“It will depend a bit on selection and what we feel we need at any given time.
“It could be that Pete and Johnny take the team on and share the load.”
Best picked up his hamstring concern in the build-up to Ulster’s Champions Cup play-off with Ospreys, missing the Ravenhill province’s 35-17 win on May 20.
Now the evergreen front-rower has failed to recover in time for Ireland’s tour, leaving Leinster’s Sean Cronin heading the queue to to start the first Test, in Brisbane on June 9.
Rob Herring is the other hooker in Ireland’s touring party, with Schmidt now to decide who will skipper the team.
Schmidt’s initial installation of Best as captain for the summer tour had pushed the Ulster star one step closer towards skippering Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
It will be 73 times-capped North’s fourth Test start in midfield, where he is partnered by Ospreys’ Owen Watkin.
Ospreys-bound North’s previous centre outings for Wales were against France four years ago and against Australia in 2014 and 2015.
Head coach Warren Gatland, who has rested almost all of the Wales players that were on British and Irish Lions duty in New Zealand last summer, hands a first cap to Cardiff Blues scrum-half Tomos Williams.
Williams, 23, will be joined at half-back by his Blues colleague Gareth Anscombe for the game in Washington, DC.
Flanker Jenkins, meanwhile, led the Blues to European Challenge Cup final success earlier this month, and was named Wales’ tour co-captain with Dragons lock Cory Hill.
There are also opportunities for the likes of Scarlets wing Tom Prydie and Blues prop Dillon Lewis as Wales prepare to face a Springboks team containing seven uncapped players. It will be Prydie’s first Wales appearance since 2013.
Uncapped Dragons forward Aaron Wainwright is among the replacements alongside a number of Scarlets players, including prop Wyn Jones, hooker Ryan Elias, scrum-half Aled Davies and centre Hadleigh Parkes.
Fly-half Rhys Patchell, meanwhile, is due to be on the bench but he faces a fitness test ahead of the game, with Scarlets number nine Gareth Davies stepping in if Patchell fails it.
Gatland said: “Saturday is a huge opportunity for this squad and for players individually. Everything we are doing is geared for the World Cup in 15 months’ time, and the next three matches are a hugely important part of our development.
“This weekend is an opportunity for players to build on their Test rugby experience and lay a marker down for the jersey and for the position going forward.
“I think there are exciting selections across the team and I’m looking forward to Saturday to see what we are able to do against the Springboks.”
After the South Africa game, Wales head to South America for Tests against Argentina on June 9 and 16.
Wales team to play South Africa on Saturday: H Amos (Dragons); T Prydie (Scarlets), G North (Ospreys), O Watkin (Ospreys), S Evans (Scarlets); G Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), T Williams (Cardiff Blues); N Smith (Ospreys), E Dee (Dragons), D Lewis (Cardiff Blues), B Davies (Ospreys), C Hill (Dragons), S Davies (Cardiff Blues), E Jenkins (Cardiff Blues, capt), R Moriarty (Dragons).
Replacements: E Elias (Scarlets), W Jones (Scarlets), R Jones (Ospreys), A Beard (Ospreys), A Wainwright (Dragons), A Davies (Scarlets), R Patchell (Scarlets), G Davies (Scarlets), H Parkes (Scarlets).