Wales boss Wayne Pivac does not expect to have captain Alun Wyn Jones available for this season’s Six Nations Championship.
Jones will undergo shoulder surgery after being injured during last Saturday’s Autumn Nations Series opener against New Zealand.
It is the same shoulder he hurt ahead of the British and Irish Lions’ South Africa tour earlier this year, although on that occasion he made a startling recovery and featured in all three Tests.
Pivac, whose team won the title last term and start their defence against Ireland in February, said: “I don’t think he will be available for the Six Nations.
“You learn a lot about the worth of people when they are not there. I think a lot of people take Alun Wyn for granted – he has always been there and got seniority.
“That leadership is really important. The essence is on others to step up and take that role on.”
Jones, 36, would have won his 150th Wales cap against world champions South Africa on Saturday, and he remains an integral part of Pivac’s plans, with a return to playing likely before the current season ends.
Asked about Jones’ prospects for the 2023 World Cup in France, Pivac added: “The intention is always to see if Al can get to the World Cup. I think it’s a realistic goal, personally.
“You’ve just got to see him in training and when he is playing, the efforts he puts in. I don’t see anything going anywhere near backwards in terms of his performances.
“A bit of time off, we spoke about this before Al left camp. It’s not ideal for him.
“We are all looking forward to him playing 150 Test matches for Wales.”
Ellis Jenkins, meanwhile, will make his first Wales appearance for three years this weekend.
The Cardiff flanker suffered a serious knee injury during Wales’ 2018 autumn victory over the Springboks and was sidelined from all rugby for 26 months, but he now returns to Test action among six changes following a 54-16 defeat against New Zealand.
Jenkins replaces shoulder injury victim Ross Moriarty, while Will Rowlands takes over from skipper Jones in the second row.
Elsewhere, there are starts for Louis Rees-Zammit, Nick Tompkins, Dan Biggar and Rhys Carre, with centre Jonathan Davies captaining the team.
Jones and Moriarty are among a number of injured British and Irish Lions unavailable to Pivac, with that list also including Taulupe Faletau, Ken Owens, George North, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi.
Jenkins has shaken off a rib injury to start, but more surprising selections are Saracens centre Tompkins being preferred to Johnny Williams – a try-scorer against New Zealand – and Carre replacing Lions Test loosehead prop Wyn Jones.
Tompkins, Gloucester wing Rees-Zammit and Northampton fly-half Biggar were unavailable for the All Blacks fixture as it fell outside World Rugby’s autumn international window and Gallagher Premiership clubs do not release non-English players to feature in those games.
Rees-Zammit is preferred to Owen Lane, with Biggar in for Gareth Anscombe, who drops to the bench, as Wales take on a South Africa team that beat New Zealand in the Rugby Championship last month.
Pivac’s replacements include uncapped South Africa-born Ulster hooker Bradley Roberts. He was drafted into the national squad last week and qualifies for Wales through his paternal grandmother.
Pivac said: “We know the threat that South Africa bring. They have got a magnificent set-piece, so discipline is going to be a key, trying not to give them too many set-pieces.
“They have a very strong defence. It is world class and probably what won them the World Cup (in 2019). Everyone is going to have to look after the ball in contact.
“They are a side that just recently beat New Zealand, so it is going to be a big, big challenge.
“South Africa have a huge kicking game, and they are very good at it. It puts teams under pressure, and there is a lot of work being done by Neil Jenkins (Wales assistant coach) with the boys in terms of aerial receipt and that our reaction time is good.”
Wales will target a fifth successive home victory against South Africa, having not lost to them in Cardiff since 2013.